Clifton Village - Bristol's Best Kept Secret
Clifton Village, a pristine Georgian enclave in the heights of Bristol, may be that city's best kept secret. I discovered it, as most people who find it probably do, on the way to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by Britain's 19th century visionary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Because I was early for my guided tour, I stopped to look around. How glad I am that I did.
For more about the Clifton Suspension Bridge click here
If you enjoy little streets lined with quirky old buildings that lead nowhere in particular, garden squares to enjoy, independent shops and tempting places to stop for a snack, a drink or a meal, you will be charmed by Clifton Village.
Alternately described as a suburb of Bristol and a borough of the city, it is composed of largely 18th and early 19th century terraces, cut across by a handful of commercial streets. It's bounded on the north by the rolling, wooded parkland of Clifton Downs and on the west by the spectacular Avon Gorge.
Things to Do
- Take a Walk - Many of Clifton's streets are lined with Grade I and II listed Georgian terraces. Explore Princess Victoria Street, Caledonia Place, Royal York Crescent and Sion Hill for some of the best and most beautifully kept houses. Stop at the scenic lookout on Sion Hill for a spectacular view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
- Shop - Key shopping streets are The Mall, Princess Victoria Street between The Mall and Regent Street, and, Boyces Avenue (running east from Regent Street, next to the Caffé Nero coffee shop). Try fashion shopping at 18 an independent boutique on The Mall with unusual and original clothing, eyewateringly expensive furniture and cute accessories. Or duck into The Clifton Arcade, a restored Victorian shopping arcade off Boyces Street, for antiques, jewelry, vintage and designer clothes and bespoke furniture.
- Eat, drink and be merry Follow your nose to the small number of informal restaurants and pubs in the area. We tried The Mall Deli Café where they serve a variety of fresh salads, sandwiches and hot dishes as well as gorgeous cupcakes. There are daily specials on a chalk board in the back and they'll serve anything from the deli counter as well as from the menu in the café area - (lunch and a hot or cold drink for less than a tenner). I tried a fresh, zingy salad of pea shoots, watercress, mint and broad beans with feta. The Brunel (0117 973 4443, 38 The Mall, noon to midnight) is a good place to meet the locals over burgers and BBQ or later wine and tapas. Catch their buzz on facebook. And if you're still in the area as evening draws in, listen to live music over West Country Cider at the Coronation Tap, one of the country's oldest cider houses where they've been pouring the stuff since before George III was on the throne (Elvis was a customer too). It opens at 5:30pm during the week and at 7pm Saturday and Sunday. Follow them on Facebook.
- From Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station, take the Number 8 bus to Clifton Village
- If you take a City Sightseeing Bristol open top bus tour from the city center, Clifton Village is Stop No. 9.
After lunch, head north to Clifton Downs and follow the road upward through the park to the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Surprising Facts About The Clifton Suspension Bridge
There's no denying that the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge is beautiful. The 702 foot span, with its deck 245 feet above high water, is a Grade I listed building and a wonder of 19th century engineering that almost didn't get built at all. No visit to Bristol is really complete without a view of it. Or the view from it - the meandering Avon and the monumental cliffs it has cut its way through are breathtaking. The story of the bridge is also full of surprising and fascinating facts - here are a few:
- The bridge is the symbol of Bristol - but it's not really in Bristol at all. During the many ups and downs in the more than 100 years that stretched from the first challenge to the completed bridge, responsibility for it was largely in the hands of various commercial organizations and companies. Today, though the bridge is part of the national road network, it is owned and operated by a trust. A marker on the pathway leading to the bridge indicates the end of the bridge anchor far below and the border of the city of Bristol. A similar marker on the opposite, Leigh Woods, side in North Somerset, shows the limit of that community's jurisdiction. Neither community provides funding for the bridge and technically it lies outside of both of them.
- It is considered one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's masterpieces, but Brunel never saw it finished and the completed bridge differs quite a bit from his original design.
The spark of an idea for the bridge came from an 18th century merchant who left £1,000 in his will to start a bridge across the gorge. His bequest stipulated that when the fund reached £10,000, a bridge should be built. By 1829, the fund had reached a little over £8,000 and a competition was held to design the bridge. Thomas Telford, the Scottish civil engineer, and himself a bridge designer, was one of the judges. And in an act of self-promotion if ever there was one, he rejected all the entries and chose his own design.
Telford's design was ultimately rejected as being too expensive and in 1831, a second competition was held. Once again, Brunel lost to another contender, a Birmingham engineering company, but the young man (only 24 at the time) was so impassioned and convinced of his design, supported by the local press, that he actually persuaded the judges to change their minds and award him the design contract. It was his first major commission.
That was just the beginning of a struggle to get the bridge built. Wars and politics interfered with fund raising, contractors went bankrupt, chains forged for the bridge were used elsewhere. When Brunel died in 1859, the bridge was unfinished and, to all intents and purposes abandoned. A year later, his colleagues at the Institution of Civil Engineers decided to complete the project as a memorial to Brunel (who by then had virtually changed the face of transportation with his railways, bridges and steam ships). Work, to a slightly altered design, began in 1862 and the bridge was finally opened in 1864, five years after Brunel's death.
- It looks as solid as brick, stone and iron can be but it actually "floats" between a pair of anchors and part of it is built from salvaged parts. The triple chains that support the bridge are anchored deep in the bedrock on either side of the bridge and are passed over "saddles" at the top of the two towers. This arrangement allows them move to absorb the stresses and strains of the forces that act upon the bridge. The chains were actually salvaged from another Brunel bridge, the original Hungerford Bridge across the Thames, when it was demolished to make way for the Charing Cross railroad bridge.
- The cable stays that support its suspended roadway are not cables at all. They are solid, vertical rods of wrought iron.
- And though it was designed for horse drawn carriages, it has been supporting modern automobiles for at least a century. Today, 11,000 to 12,000 cars cross it every day.
Visitor Center and Tours
An exhibition in the Visitor Information Center on the Leigh Woods side of the bridge tells the story of its construction as well as some of the unusual occurrences in the bridge's history.
In 1885, for example, a woman jumped from the bridge and, cushioned by all her Victorian skirts, petticoats and pantaloons, actually survived. Though badly injured, she lived to the ripe old age of 84, dying in 1948.
Until the 1930s when the practice was outlawed, daredevil pilots regularly flew under the bridge. In 1957, an RAF pilot flew a jet at 450mph under the bridge. He did not live to brag about it though. He hit a cliff on the Leigh Woods side and died instantly.
The center, which includes a shop selling postcards, books and gifts, is open every day from 10am to 5pm except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Free guided tours, packed with information about the bridge and its history, take place at 3pm every Saturday and Sunday between Easter Sunday and October. Tours start at the Clifton toll booth, rain or shine.