Clifton Suspension Bridge


Duration:33 years


Country: Bristol, UK

What did this project achieve?

Construct a bridge over the Avon gorge to speed up crossing times

The earliest known bridge across the Avon was built in the 13th century. By the early 18th century increases in traffic had made crossing dangerous for pedestrians – numbers of accidents were increasing and many people were killed.

A competition was held in 1829 to design a new bridge. None of the ideas submitted were successful either because of their appearance or cost.

A second competition followed in 1831. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was among the 13 entrants. His design won – a suspension bridge with Egyptian-influenced towers.

Work started in June 1831 but was cut short by the Bristol riots. These were sparked by the House of Lords rejecting legislation to give new industrial towns, including Bristol, a seat in Parliament.

The riots dented confidence in Bristol, money for the project dried up and construction was abandoned with only the masonry towers completed.

After Brunel's death in 1859 colleagues at ICE decided that completing the bridge would be a fitting tribute to his work.

ICE members William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw revised Brunel's design. It now had a wider, higher deck and its double chains were replaced by triple. The also dropped plans for cladding the towers with Egyptian themed iron plates.

Work restarted using the new design in 1862.

Difference the bridge has made

Clifton Suspension Bridge has become an essential piece of transport infrastructure with thousands of people and vehicles crossing every day.

Its iconic status and connection to Brunel have also made the bridge a major local tourist attraction. The bridge has boosted income for the region since it was built and it's seen as a major symbol of the city of Bristol.

How the suspension bridge was built

Barlow and Hawkshaw's team pulled wrought iron wire cables across the valley to support a wooden planked deck which formed a temporary crossing.

The crossing was used to move a 'traveller' – a light frame on wheels which transported each link individually. The links were joined together in chains to support the bridge.

Workers anchored the chains in tapered tunnels on either side of the bridge. Staffordshire blue brick was used to stop the chains being pulled out of the tunnel mouths. Girders were hung from the chains to support the deck.

Engineers tested the structure by spreading 500 tonnes of stone over the bridge. This caused it to sag by 7 inches (180mm) which was within expected tolerance.

Construction was finally completed in 1864 – 35 years after the first competition to build a bridge across the gorge.


Clifton Suspension Bridge is the symbol of Bristol, the city's most recognisable structure and a stunning piece of engineering.


Bristol Post

Fascinating facts

Oxford University's Dangerous Sports Club made the first modern bungee jumps from the bridge in 1979.

UConcorde made its last ever flight across the bridge in 2003.

Barriers were installed on the bridge in 1998 to stop suicide attempts. The measure is credited with reducing deaths from 8 to 4 a year. The bridge is also fitted with plaques giving the telephone number of counselling charity The Samaritans.

The bridge was privately funded and always had a toll. Vehicles are charged a £1 to cross (since 2014).

People who made it happen

  • Designers: William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw

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