Clifton Suspension Bridge: History and Visiting Tips

Probably Bristol’s most iconic structure, the suspension bridge in Clifton opened in 1864 and has operated as a toll bridge ever since. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and leads from Clifton over the River Avon to Northern Somerset. The bridge is a marvel; stretching from bank to bank over the Avon Gorge, it dominates the skyline of Clifton and the views from it are extraordinary.

Clifton Suspension Bridge History

The idea for a bridge being constructed at the narrowest point of the Avon Gorge was thought of due to the old Bristol Bridge becoming too dangerous for people to use, yet a high bridge was needed for tall-masted warships to fit under it whilst travelling to the city. A competition to see who could design the bridge was established – it received 22 entries. Brunel submitted four entries, but they all ended up being rejected by Thomas Telford, Scottish engineer and competition judge. Telford decided he would be the best person to design the bridge, and it was predicted to cost a whopping £52,000 to build.

They failed to raise the money for this bridge, and Brunel designed a new proposal which cost £10,000 less to create. Another competition was hosted in 1831, with entries from many of the original proposers. The winner was actually first designed to be Smith and Hawkes, but, in a personal meeting with the judge Davies Gilbert, Brunel persuaded him to change his mind. 

The bridge that we see today was largely based on Brunel’s winning design, yet was adapted by his predecessors (Brunel actually died before the bridge was constructed). Nonetheless, the grand Victorian monument harks to Bristol’s complex history and is one of the city’s most intriguing structures.

How to Visit

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is located in (you may have guessed it) Clifton Village. It’s a five minute walk from the high street and stretches over to Leigh Woods, which is the suburb of Bristol that is closest to North Somerset, on the other side. Ashton can be easily walked to from the city centre. 

It is free to walk across the bridge, and costs £1 for a car to cross – taking coins or contactless cards. There is a small visitor centre on the Somerset side of the bridge that is open from 10am – 5pm every day. It is free to enter and discusses the workings of the bridge. There is no car park for the centre, so guests should park in Clifton or Leigh Woods and walk there. 

When to visit? 

If you’re around at 3pm on a Saturday or Sunday from Easter to October, free tours with one of the local volunteers operate. At night year-round, the bridge is illuminated and makes for some great night shots. 

In early August, the Bristol Balloon Fiesta is hosted in Ashton Court, and many balloons fly over the bridge creating scenes like the below. This is a really popular time to be in Clifton!

Local tips

For a great view of the Bridge, check out The White Lion pub in Clifton Village; it has a great balcony where you can sit and marvel at the construction!

Or climb up Observatory Hill and catch a glimpse of the bridge from another angle. The bridge is free for you to walk across (toll charge for cars), where you can enjoy impressive views of the river and city beyond.

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