Nov 05, 2015

As an adjective the word “iconic” is often overused but few would argue against its appropriateness when used to describe the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has spanned the Avon Gorge for more than 150 years.

When William Vick, a wealthy Bristol wine merchant, died in 1754 he left £1,000 in his will with instructions for it to be invested until it reached £10,000, the amount he felt would be required to build a stone bridge across the Avon Gorge. It would link the hamlet of Clifton and the private estates of Leigh Woods and would be free for travellers to cross.

By 1829 the legacy was worth £8,000 and a committee was set up to decide how to proceed. They soon realised that the cost of a stone bridge would be in the region of £90,000. An iron bridge would be cheaper but would still require tolls to cover its cost and maintenance. An Act of Parliament was required to allow the changes to Vick’s bequest and once this was passed a competition was announced to design a bridge, with a prize of 100 guineas for the winner.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel submitted a design but the competition’s judge, the distinguished engineer Thomas Telford, dismissed all the entries and accepted the committee’s invitation to design the bridge himself. However, the people of Bristol didn’t like his design for a three span bridge supported by Gothic towers and in 1830 a second competition was held, to which Brunel submitted four designs, one being the eventual winner.

The foundation stone was laid the following June, but later that year the Queen Square riots led to work on the project being suspended. It did not recommence until 1836 and would then take another 28 years to complete.

Brunel died in 1859, aged just 53. He did not see his bridge opened to the public on Thursday 8th December 1864 but it is hoped he would have been proud of it and pleased with its status as one of Bristol’s cultural icons, the most visually recognised symbol of the city – visiting it only comes second on Trip Advisor’s list of 165 things to do in Bristol but as number one is Brunel’s ss Great Britain, he probably wouldn’t be too upset about that!

Search for “bridge” in The Bristol Shop and you will quickly get an idea of how inspirational Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge is to the city’s artists, photographers and designers including:

Brett Charles 

Mary Corum


Nick Church

Jenny Mackendrick


and many more!

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