The Clifton Suspension Bridge spans the River Avon in Bristol, southwest England. Completed in 1864, 110 years after a bridge at the site was first planned, the Clifton still carries cars (for a toll of £1 each way) and pedestrians between the districts of Clifton and Leigh Woods.
The bridge's designer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of Britain's greatest civil engineers. Brunel also designed London's Paddington Station and the SS Great Britain, the first modern ocean liner, which you can tour in Bristol. With his father, Marc Isambard Brunel, he also developed the technology used to dig the first tunnel under the River Thames in London.
The Clifton Bridge's total length is 1,352 feet, but its center span, or the only portion suspended over the river gorge, is 702 feet. The deck is 245 feet above the Avon at high tide, but the surface of the river can drop as much as 42 feet when the tide is out. At 20 feet wide, there's only room for two narrow lanes of traffic and a pedestrian path on either side.
Both the towers and the piers that make up their foundations are composed of local stone. Brunel had meant for the Clifton's towers to be built in an Egyptian-inspired design with sphinxes on top, but they were left with unfinished faces instead to save costs. Though the two towers are the same height (72 feet) their shapes at the top are slightly different.
The steep banks of the Avon River gorge wind toward the River Severn and the Atlantic Ocean. Fun fact: This River Avon is not the same Avon that flows through William Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon (it's actually one of eight Avons in the UK). And if that wasn't confusing enough, "Avon" is the Celtic word for river.
A highlight of our tour are underground vaults beneath the Leigh Woods tower. Built into the tower's abutment during construction, they were covered up when the bridge was completed and not rediscovered until 2002 during a roadway repaving project.
To reach the vaults, you first have to walk down a path near the visitor center until you reach the edge of the gorge.
Stalactites hung from the ceiling of this chamber, as well. Our guide said that when a stalactite becomes too heavy, it will fall to the ground. Luckily none fell during our visit even though we were wearing hardhats.