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Steampunk Days Out-Clifton and the Avon Gorge-part I

The Bridge!

Clifton is a suburb of Bristol and offers a huge number of interesting experiences for the Victorian Visitor. This may end up being a two part post. There are a number of truly amazing sites to visit as well as some that are no less exciting for their more subtle nature.
We’ve stayed at Clifton three times. We always stay at the Avon Gorge Hotel, which is located just downhill from the Clifton Suspension Bridge (much more about this amazing structure below). The Avon Gorge Hotel is a bit pricey. It’s usually the most expensive place we stay, so we consider it a guilty pleasure. The rooms are excellent. They have high ceilings huge bathrooms and heated towel racks. We’ve been really lucky and had bridge views on both our last visits. The photo below was the view of the sun setting through the bridge, taken from our room’s window. So how amazing is that?

The sun setting through the bridge. This photo was taken from our room window!

The hotel has a restaurant and an attached pub, and the food in both is surprisingly good. The breakfast is served buffet style and is surprisingly good for that. Good breakfasts are critically important for a explorer!

And there is a lot to explore in Clifton. Let’s start with the immediate vicinity of the hotel http://www.theavongorge.com/. The hotel started out as a Victorian Era spa using the hot springs found at the base of the cliff ay Hot Wells. In the 1890s the new spa hotel was constructed, as was the Clifton Rocks Railway, and the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydropathic Institute. These three ventures went hand in hand and were generally developed by George Newnes. The hot water was pumped up from below and the Rocks Railway provided a transportation link between the tramway in the river valley and the fashionable Clifton Heights area. Of the spa very little is left. On the river side of the hotel there is a huge chimney which is the most visible remnant of the laundry. Its different color easily stands out from the lighter colored main building.

The remaining material from the original turnstiles

The Clifton Rocks Railway is a funicular railway, meaning that each set of cars in the paired railways as a counterweight to the other. In the Clifton example there are four tracks, set on a gradient of 1 in 2 in tunnels inside the cliff. When one car in each pair goes up, the other comes down. Balancing was done by pumping water into and letting it drain out of reservoirs in the bottoms of the cars. The tunnels are 450 feet long and rise 240 vertical feet from the lower station to the upper. The railway was opened on March 11, 1893 and served into the 1930s. During WW2 the tunnels served both as a bomb shelter and as a secret location for a BBC transmitter and studio. Today the railway is being interpreted by a volunteer group that hopes to restore the railway http://www.cliftonrocksrailway.org.uk/.

On infrequent dates they offer open days of the railway tunnels. The short tour, which gives limited access to the upper station, requires about 45 minutes and has no charge. They do ask for donations and sell a number of interesting booklets about the railway and the area. They also have a DVD of the site. We were extremely lucky to find the railway open for investigation when we were dragging our luggage up from the Avon Gorge Hotel’s free card park. The guide was very knowledgeable and it was exciting to learn more about the unsuspected history of the nondescript upper station. We had walked by the subsurface building many times when staying in Clifton and always wondered what it was.
They also do a guided tour of much more of the site. These must be booked in advance. Please see their web site for additional details.

Another underground location, but one well up slope from the Rocks Railway is a series of caves located beneath the Clifton Observatory which houses a Camera Obscura. The collocation of a tower and the deep caves gives the opportunity for the visitor to climb an unholy number of steps. The lower tunnels are quite low and required care when traversing them. They open out to a fissure in the rock that gives a tremendous view of the gorge from partway up the cliff wall. The Camera and caverns require a small fee or around 2 pounds and require about an hour for each. The views from both the cave on the cliff wall and the top of the tower (which had originally been built as a windmill) are spectacular. For best effect pick a sunny day, cameras obscura (or is that camera obscuras?) do not function well on cloudy days. The tower is an excellent location from which to shoot photos of Brunel’s famous bridge.

I’ve waited long enough before discussing the Clifton Suspension Bridge http://www.cliftonbridge.org.uk/. The Bridge is the symbol of the city of Bristol and is famous from numerous photographs and images dating back over 150 years. A small visitor center and gift shop is located at the northern approach to the bridge. From this location guided tours are available. We arrived late in the day and only caught the end of the last tour of the day, but the guide seemed well versed in the lore of both Brunel and bridges. I picked up a number of souvenirs from the visitor center. Walking across the bridge is free, but driving across does cost a modest toll. It is more than worth it to get to use this great triumph of Victorian technology. Begun by Brunel in the 1830s it was not completed until after his death, as a tribute to him by his fellow civil engineers. The story of its design and construction are complex and I could not do them just here. Suffice to say that this is one of the most well balanced and sublime structures in the world and that something this lovely still performs its original function so many years after it was designed and built is a tribute to British engineering and particularly to Brunel himself. There are many locations around the bridge which give stupendous views. Treat yourself to a good long time here. Don’t be in haste. If you look long enough you will notice the purposeful asymmetries of the towers, designed in direct refutation to the Georgian mandates from which the Victorians broke free.

Finish up with a dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in Clifton. We can recommend at least three of them. Fishers is a seafood house which had excellent fare. Brunel’s Raj is (as you can guess from the name) an Indian restaurant and is quite passable and if you are in the mood for Italian try Strada. These all served excellent food at reasonable prices and are a quick walk from the bridge and hotel.

More on Clifton next week, as I said it offered more than I can discuss in a single installment.