Sitting on the beautiful River Avon, Bristol was once England ‘s second largest town and a major port, with a floating harbour at its centre. Today, although the docks were closed and the port activities have moved out of town, Bristol remains a thriving city, with a vibrancy that attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Bristol has risen to the tourist challenge, celebrating the city’s maritime heritage and transforming its original floating harbour and docklands into a flourishing area. Converted warehouses rub shoulders with new buildings to offer attractive shops, restaurants, galleries, café bars, museums and apartments.
Where ships once navigated carefully into port, the Harbourside is now a key commercial, residential and leisure area, running from the Cumberland Basin right in to the city centre. Sailing, windsurfing, rowing, canoeing and even waterskiing have all become increasingly popular. More and more boats are using the area, especially during the Bristol Harbour Festival, held every July.
While the ferries and boats give wonderful views of the harbour and the city, one of the most impressive local sights has to be that which greets passengers flying into Bristol International Airport – Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who went on to create the Great Western Railway (GWR), Clifton Suspension Bridge is recognised around the world as an icon of Victorian engineering excellence.
It spans the 1.5 mile long Avon Gorge worn by the river, meandering its way through a limestone ridge to the west of Bristol. Forming the boundary between the city and North Somerset, Avon Gorge was once a defensive gateway to the city Harbour in the days when it was a major port.
With the city’s economy booming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the suburb of Clifton became a very desirable place to live. Mansions were built overlooking the gorge, then came a large public park, The Downs.
The idea of spanning the River Avon was first put forward in the mid 1700s, but it was in 1831 that the young Brunel submitted his winning design for a bridge to cross it at Clifton. Although it was Brunel’s first major commission and he went on to become one of the greatest Victorian engineers, sadly the suspension bridge took so long to construct that he never lived to see it open.
Almost as soon as it was completed, in 1864, the Clifton Bridge began to attract visitors and earn its place as a great engineering landmark. It crosses the Avon at a point where the gorge is over 300ft deep and 700 ft wide.
The Avon Gorge itself has always been a popular area. As well as Clifton to its east, there are the glorious Leigh Woods to the west. Three Iron Age hill forts overlook the gorge, plus an observatory developed from an eighteenth century windmill. Many of the historic buildings within this area now make wonderfully luxurious Bristol hotels.
The lime stone that was in such demand during Bristol’s boom years was quarried from the Avon Gorge. These days, much quieter activities take place, as the old quarries are home to jackdaws, pigeons and seagulls. The gorge enjoys a microclimate and on warm days the lucky bird-watcher can spot an occasional Peregrine falcon soaring on a strong uplift while hunting its prey.
The steep, sound crags with their rich pockets are also a big favourite with climbers, as well as being home to some rare plants and unique trees.
Whilst thousands of visitors bustle across the Clifton Suspension Bridge, horseshoe bats quietly get on with life, nesting under its buttresses. Close by, a short tunnel carries the Portishead Railway under the bridge.
As the bats begin to flit, so the bridge lights up. Amazingly, there are no light bulbs involved in the process, thanks to a state-of-the-art system. Light emitting diodes illuminate the whole bridge using little more electricity than one of the nearby houses that’s left all its lights on.
Such technology would have staggered Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose bridge was crossed by horse and cart, long before the advent of heavy motor traffic. As well as the GWR, Brunel went on to design a railway system that connected the city’s Temple Meads station to his magnificent suspension bridge.
Two great ships, also designed by this skilled Victorian engineer, were built locally in Bristol. One of these vessels – the fully restored SS Great Britain – takes pride of place of place on the Harbourside. She was the first ocean-going iron ship to be driven by screw propeller.
Yet it’ s for the Clifton Suspension Bridge that Brunel will probably best be remembered. Just as they did way back in 1864, people still stop to marvel at this spectacular structure, which has become Bristol ‘s most famous landmark.