Brunel and Bristol

Clifton suspension bridge which spans the river Avon has become the symbol of Bristol.   This post is about the bridge’s designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Last Sunday our walk in the past walking group walked from Temple Meads railway station to Clifton Suspension bridge to see some of his legacy to the city.  Our route round the old docks and up into Clifton is very popular with visitors to Bristol. The river Avon is too tidal and shallow for large boats to come into the heart of Bristol  and the docks have been transformed into an area for pleasure craft with modern flats and restaurants.  You can stroll round the old floating harbour or catch a yellow ferry boat.  Some of the old warehouses have been transformed into art galleries or museums. I recommend M shed which is free to enter and has many interesting exhibits about the history of Bristol industry or the watershed which shows an eclectic  selection of films. Keeping with the theme of this post on a fine day Bristolians love to visit Brunel’s buttery next to the M shed and enjoy a sausage sandwich while overlooking the docks.

Brunel championed by Jeremy Clarkson was voted second after Winston Churchill in a BBC poll to find the greatest Briton  a few years ago. This is slightly ironic as he was half French and educated in France. Brunel was born in Portsmouth in 1806 but moved to London as a boy.   He was sent to Bristol to recuperate after having been badly injured while helping his father who was a civil engineer on a project to build a tunnel under the Thames in London. The Brunels misjudged the strength of the rock under the river bed and the tunnel flooded. Several workers were killed but fortunately  Isambard Brunel managed to find something to hang on to.

The Clifton suspension bridge

The story of the bridge  began in 1790 when William Vick left money in his will for a bridge across the Avon. People realised that this was not enough to construct a bridge and it was decided to leave it in a bank until compound interest meant it reached £10,000. While Isambard was in Bristol there was a competition to design  a bridge and he submitted several entries. Although he failed at first one of his designs was chosen. The bridge proved too costly and was not finished until after his death when they were able to obtain some second hand chains. We love it.

The bridge across the Avon
The Clifton Suspension bridge

Temple Meads station

Taxis queue up outside Temple Meads station
The façade of Temple Meads station looks more like a castle

Not as many people know that Brunel also designed Temple Meads station. When he was 29 he was appointed chief engineer for the Great Western Railway which was to run between Bristol and London. Brunel was a true early Victorian and enjoyed playing with different styles of architecture. The station was very ostentatious and designed to look like a castle. If you arrive in Bristol by train take a good look at the façade.

Brunel had big dreams. he planed to build a railway line from Paddington Station in London to Bristol. Passengers could arrive at Temple Meads station and then stay at a hotel he had built before embarking on a voyage to America or Australia.  The hotel can still be seen but is now an office block and known as Brunel house.

The Great Britain

The Great Britain

Two enormous steam ships were built in Bristol docks the Great Britain and the Great Western. The SS Great Britain launched in 1843 by Prince Albert was the first Iron hulled steam ship to cross the Atlantic which she did in 14 days. She had sails as well as an engine in case of difficulty. After taking thousands of emigrants to America and Australia she was retired to the Falkland Isles where she was left to rust. In 1970 Sir Jack Hayward  paid for the rusty hulk to be returned to Bristol. She has been lovingly restored. The boat now forms part of a very interesting museum which I recommend visiting. You get a very good idea what life would have been like for early emigrants to America or Australia. Tickets also include a new exhibit Being Brunel. Visitors can often see a replica of the Mathew, the boat which took John Cabot to Newfoundland moored along side. Unlike the Great Britain which is in dry dock the Mathew still provides sailing trips for visitors. If you want to find out more about the Great Britain exhibition click here

Brunel was also involved with improvements to the port designing a dredger and a system for filtering silt from the river bed. The Great Britain was the biggest ship to ever be built in Bristol and the harbour gates had to be widened specially. When she was brought back on a barge many sceptics doubted that she would make it.

On Sunday we walked across the suspension bridge which is free to cross for pedestrians and we were able to look round the small visitor centre which is also free.

If you visit Bristol and want to avoid the steep hill up to Clifton you can catch a number 8 bus or use the red hop on hop off bus.

I recommend this article if you would like to learn more about the history of architectural styles. Most recognised architectural styles

A question for locals do you know where “Bob” Brunel’s other Bridge is?

Thesign reads  Brunel's other bridge

This post will be added to a link party for blogging grandparents. I would love to hear your comments. Don’t be shy.

Author: Anne Fraser

Hi, I am Anne, I am a retired nurse from Bristol in South West England. I am married with five grown up children, four boys and a girl , a grandson and a cat. I like History, travel and reading. I hope to connect with other people with similar interests.

21 thoughts on “Brunel and Bristol”

  1. We did the HMS Great Britain on our last visit but ran out of time to do the Clifton Suspension Bridge – would love to visit next time

  2. I loved reading this Anne, just last year we visited Bristol and saw the SS Great Britain museum. We have also been on a guided walking tour in London where it was all about Brunel, he was so talented and clever! Great memories of a beautiful area. Visiting from Dee’s Wednesday linkup.

  3. I have family in Bristol, so have visited Clifton Suspension bridge many times. It’s an incredible structure to witness and interesting to find out more about the history behind it 🙂

  4. It’s fascinating to learn more of the history. I hadn’t realised, for instance, about the tunnel flooding under the Thames and killing workers, leaving Brunel himself injured. I’d imagine a lot of great projects, especially many years ago, resulted in a lot of accidents, injuries and deaths, and I always find it sad those lives are forgotten about.

    The suspension bridge is certainly an impressive piece of architecture and the views look incredible. I’ve still not been but it’s on my bucket list. I’m hoping to visit Bristol again this summer (it’s really not all that far) and get a bus from the train station to Clifton. If I do make it there, I’ll stand in the station and think of Brunel, as I had no idea he also designed Temple Meads. That’s a man with great talent and imagination! Wonderfully insightful post, Anne.
    Caz xx

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