Another Day Out: Bristol and a bridge

Saturday, May 21, 2016

When last we left our hero, lo those many weeks ago (sorry about that) it was early afternoon in Bristol and she was full-to-brimming with the kind of satisfaction that can only be engendered by completing a highly bloggable visit to a well-presented and diverting site involving lots of Victorian engineering and gears, all before lunch time, and with the promise of more to come.

After leaving ship, I continued walking along the harbour but the weather turned and what started as a light rain - the kind that those familiar with UK weather will usually not even bother opening an umbrella for - quickly became something that while not quite torrential still required shelter of some kind.  Luckily, just as this was happening, I was passing by another lovely little site - the last surviving Fairburn steam-powered crane in the UK.

Designed by William Fairburn and patented in 1850 - the salient feature of the Fairburn design is the elegantly curved jib that allowed it to reach further over the gunwales of increasingly large ships.  The strength of the jib comes from its construction as a series of box girders.

It's rarely open to the public, and in fact wasn't really open on that Saturday either.  But luckily, as I was passing and the rain was pelting down, I saw the door open and was invited into the small cabin along with another damp pedestrian, by a young man who was there as a volunteer cleaning out the boiler for the next time they planned to fire it up.  He proudly informed us that the crane is still safety certified to lift 35 tons.  And he let me take some pictures of lovely big, greasy gears.

Big, greasy gears.

It wasn't long, though, before the weather cleared and I left the young man to finish mucking out his crane (or whatever it is one does to prepare a steam engine for use) and ventured into central Bristol for coffee and lunch.  Bristol is a university town, so it is frankly bursting with small independent restaurants and coffee shops.  And in the kind of coincidence that restores one's faith in whoever or whatever one has faith in, there was also a food festival going on that weekend, so I kept stumbling into open public spaces filled with stalls selling artisanal charcuterie or fresh local produce or patisserie or ice cream or handmade donuts.  Really, the whole downtown of Bristol seems quite lovely, and the sun was shining, and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around while I gradually made my way north-ish and westward towards the next big Brunel site on my list: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  The bridge was one of the things that drew me to Bristol in the first place, so I was keen to see it up close.  Little did I realise what a brilliant and fantastic thing it is.

The Avon Gorge.  It's even more impressive in person

The bridge spans the Avon Gorge, a dramatic geological feature that's more than 700 feet wide and 300 feet deep at the site of the bridge.  It’s the (eventual) result of a sponsored design contest to devise a bridge that could span the gorge but also allow the passage of tall-masted sailing ships below it (a problem that Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will recall was solved in a much different way in London).  The contest elicited designs from 22 entrants, including no less than four from our man Brunel, never one to do things by half measures. Unfortunately, the contest was judged by the Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford, who decided that none of the submitted designs were suitable, but was happy to provide one of his own that he naturally deemed ideal for the circumstance.  How lucky!

Luckier still, officials decided the cost of Telford's design was too great, and sought revised plans for a wrought iron suspension bridge, eventually choosing a design by Brunel (after what has to be admitted was a bit of jiggery-pokery-like strong-arming on Brunel's part).  Though perhaps he can be forgiven considering the estimated cost of his design was £10,000 less than Telford's stone towers.  Construction started in 1831, but was halted only days later by the Bristol Riots, which left the city's commerce struggling to recover and dried up funding for the bridge.  Work began again in 1836, but faltered once more and continued in an on-again-off-again fashion until it was finally opened in 1864.  However, Brunel was unable to attend the opening of the completed bridge, owing to the slight inconvenience of having died 5 years previously.  Some even assert that after the numerous revisions and compromises to the structure by other consulting engineers Brunel shouldn’t really be considered the bridge’s designer.  Or at least not its sole designer.  Nevertheless, it is a truly stunning structure.

The rain continued in fits and starts but at this point the sun came out and this was the result.  Gorgeous. 

Brunel's original design was a sort of faux Egyptian thing that called for the towers to be topped with sphinxes, but they were never added.  Boo!  
(Also boo to the fact that the whole south tower was swaddled in scaffolding.)

I took that second photo from the rocky crags near the Clifton Observatory.  The observatory looked like a very worthy site to add to my schedule because it's got a big camera obscura that shows a 360 degree image of the view from the top of the tower via a series of mirrors.  And there's a tunnel from the observatory to a cave on the side of the cliff where you can look out onto the gorge.  Sadly, it was closed by the time I got there.  Sadder still,  I never made it back the next day.  But on a happy note this means I'll probably have to go back to Bristol, because in addition to the camera obscura and the tunnel/cave combo there are also 371 coffee shops I never made it to.

What I did see, though, was a bizarre local landmark simply called the rock slide.  Don't be fooled, though, into thinking I'm talking about a place where rocks have slid off the side of a hill.  Certainly not.  The rock slide is a place where people go to slide down the rocks.  Of course.

As the Guardian put it:  "this natural slide is nothing more than a sloping band of rock polished to shiny slipperiness by decades of dedicated bottoms".   As one who grew up tobogganing on proper snowy hillsides, my heart goes out to all the generations of Bristolians who've had to content themselves with this sliding experience.  Especially the early pioneers.  ("Come on Derek, let's hit the rock slide.  If we just keep at it, in 75 years our great-great-grandkids might be able to achieve yawningly boring speeds with only minor bruising!")

And that was about it for the day.  Considering the precipitous height of the gorge, you can imagine that there was some fairly significant uphill trekking involved in getting there from sea-level, where I started.  So having spent most of the day on my feet, I was pleased to realise that the sun was well and truly over the yardarm and quickly found a convivial pub where I had a well deserved gin and tonic (artisinally served with a sprig of rosemary, of course) and rested my feet before having supper and a passable sticky toffee pudding.  And then just to top things off I walked all the way back to the house, by which time my feet had just enough left in them to get me upstairs to bed.

1 Comment:

Piran said...

Looks at if you might need to return to the bridge for a second visit, as there's more than keys the eye:

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