Brunel: The Boat and the Bridge
Millennium Square Landing
Welcome to Bristol's city centre docks, a very different place now to the time we'll be talking about today.
You should be standing in the large open square, with a black cylindrical structure in front of you and the Avon river just behind it. The large, curved Lloyds building should be behind you.
We’re stepping back to look at Bristol's industrial history through the achievements of one man; Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
I'm Steven, originally a Londoner and a longtime student of history there. Now, as an adopted Bristolian, I was excited to throw myself into learning all I could about the man who laid the foundations for Bristol's place in the world. I was hoping for an interesting journey, and I wasn't disappointed, as we'll see together today!
Almost all of this walk is through pedestrianised areas. We'll pass two of Brunel's iconic creations, the steamship SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We’ll look at Brunel’s life through these two famous creations.
[1,5 SECOND PAUSE]
Let's get going.
With the Lloyds building behind you, walk to the right of the cylindrical structure towards the Avon and then turn right, following the path alongside the river.
VoiceMap works by using GPS to play audio at each location, so you can put your phone away and follow the directions I'll be giving you. Occasionally there will be silence, but this is normal, you're just in between locations.
To start, a bit about Bristol's own past. As a historic settlement, it went by the name of 'Brigstowe' and was first recorded in an Anglo-Saxon record of 1021. This location of this city led to a period of prosperous success, as we'll hear about in a moment.
Carry on along the path, keeping the river on your left. I'll meet you shortly at the next location.
Past the Lloyd's Building
Carry on going, with the river on your left.
The city of Brigstowe was founded in the Middle Ages. It originally stood to the north-east of here, on a bend in the river now occupied by Castle Park. This location between the rivers Avon and Frome meant it was perfectly located to thrive as a sea port. The city came into it's own when a link was made to the "New World" of the Americas.
The 1600s saw the start of the "triangle trade”. From here, textiles were brought to the African coast, ships emptied and loaded with slaves, then carried to the Americas. There they were loaded with sugar and tobacco to complete the triangle and return to the British Isles. This lucrative, controversial trade fed Bristol's growth.
Keep walking and we'll start to talk about Brunel himself.
Carry on straight.
The bustling growth of the city was slowed by natural forces.
Bristol grappled with its huge tidal range, a problem when it came to efficient loading and unloading of ships between high and low tide. This problem was met head on by engineers in 1802, when a huge pair of lock gates were commissioned. We’ll see these at the end of our walk. These held back the tide that would allow the dense shipping trade to thrive. They were completed in 1809 but our story proper starts three years earlier...
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9th April 1806 in the seafaring city of Portsmouth. He was the son of famed French engineer Marc Brunel. It was surely his father's influence which meant that, by the age of 10, Brunel was fluent in French. He’s also mastered Euclidian geometry and had a firm grasp of basic engineering principles. He was schooled in Hove on England's south coast and continued it in France.
He returned home aged 15 when misfortune befell his father. In 1821 Marc Brunel spent three months of his life in debtors prison after a string of failed engineering projects. Owing around £500,000 in today's money, his debt was cleared by the British Government on the promise that he stay working in England. A few years later, in 1825, Marc Brunel embarked on his most famous project with his son by his side. Neither knew that it would nearly cost Brunel his life but would serve to change it forever.
Let’s keep following the river.
Follow the upper path, with the buildings on your right.
In 1825 Brunel and his father were working to build the world's first underwater tunnel. This ran beneath the River Thames in London, between the docks at Wapping and Rotherhithe. Their groundbreaking work was slow and dangerous. The Thames broke through the tunnel walls more than once. Just 3 years into the 18 years it took to complete the tunnel, one breach nearly killed Brunel. He was pulled from the water barely alive. He chose to spend the long recovery in Bristol, which became his adopted home.
He was chief engineer for the Great Western Railway from 1833, singlehandedly surveying a 119 mile railway line between London and Bristol. Brunel planned to cut the journey between the two cities from 17 hours by horse to 4 hours by train. He designed both London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads stations at either end of the line. We'll touch more on this later...
Even this railway wasn't enough for Brunel. He wanted his rail line to be the first stage of a transatlantic journey. He envisaged a non-stop journey from London to New York, and started building a ship that could carry you the rest of the way. Look across to the other side of the Avon and you'll see the masts of this ship, the SS Great Britain.
We'll get closer to the ship as we walk, so continue following the river.
Follow the path to the right, turning left across the footbridge to stay on the upper level walkway.
We'll lose sight of the SS Great Britain briefly, enough time to talk about Brunel's second iconic project that we'll see today, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We'll see it closer to the end of the route but it was 1831 when Brunel first presented his plans for the bridge. At the same time he was planning crossing the Atlantic, he was also masterminding crossing the Avon gorge, a far shorter distance but no less fraught.
Cross the footbridge and continue along the path as it curves to the left around the buildings.
Spoke & Stringer
Turn left in front of Spoke and Stringer and continue straight through the stone arch.
Famously energetic, the 1830s were busy for Brunel, with both bridge and boat underway. His 1831 plan for the Clifton Suspension Bridge was one of many submitted as part of a competition to find a design for the crossing.
Carry on going, I'll fill you in about it shortly.
Turn left on Gasworks Lane
Turn left here.
The competition was run by engineer Thomas Telford, and there was public outcry when he won it himself. The design was rejudged and Brunel was victorious.
Construction started in 1831 but was halted almost immediately. Civil unrest saw riots break out across the country, affecting Bristol as well as Brunel himself.
Continue back towards the river.
Back on the riverside
Turn right here and continue straight, along the river.
Look to your left as we walk for better views of the SS Great Britain. We'll get back to it shortly.
Brunel's bridge construction was halted when riots broke out across the country. Reforms aimed at giving more parliamentary power to cities like Bristol had failed. The people were not happy. For three days over 500 rioters ran roughshod through Bristol. Bridge construction was halted. Brunel himself was sworn in as a special constable and two British army cavalry regiments were called in to the city. They waited cautiously for two days on the outskirts of the city to avoid inciting the riots further before tragedy struck.
Keep following the river.
We'll pause in a moment to admire the SS Great Britain in all her glory, but continue straight for now.
After two tense days, cavalry commander Thomas Brereton led his mounted soldiers into Bristol's Queens Square and met the rioters head on. They charged the crowd and 4 rioters died with 86 wounded before the unrest was put down. As if this wasn't bad enough, Brereton himself was later court marshalled for his initial leniency. He shot himself dead before the conclusion of his trial.
Carry on straight to learn more about the SS Great Britain.
On your right you'll see a bust on a plinth, of another famous Bristolian Samuel Plimsoll. Stop in front of it for a moment.
He gave his name to the Plimsoll line, a marker painted on the side of sea-going cargo ships. This was a simple way to show when a boat was becoming dangerously overloaded, making shipping safer for all to this day.
Turn around from facing Plimsoll to admire Brunel's crowing glory, the SS Great Britain. This ship is a ship of firsts. She was the first steel-hulled transatlantic liner and the first to be powered by a propellor at her stern instead of paddles at her sides. Ambitious from the word go, her plans changed numerous times and she would grow larger and larger each time. When her keel was laid in 1839, the SS Great Britain was 1000 tons larger than any ship built at that time. She measured 322 feet long, was 50ft wide and had a top speed of 13mph.When launched in July 1843, she had space for 360 passengers. But her size was to prove her undoing as we'll learn shortly.
[2 SECOND PAUSE]
Continue walking along the river in the same direction.
We're going to keep walking straight from here but now is a chance to turn around for a different view of the SS Great Britain from the bow. Snap a pic and let's keep going.
[2 SECOND PAUSE]
Launched on July 19th 1843, the SS Great Britain's size immediately got her into trouble. Huge crowds gathered for a procession and to see her emerge from dry dock. Brunel arrived in the city at 10am, on a train he conducted himself that carried guest of honour Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. In the midst of this carnival atmosphere, the SS Great Britain was launched. Immediately, she was scuppered by her own size. Thanks to a delay in essential harbour modifications, she was too wide and too deep to be towed to the open water and to London for her final fit-out. Lengthy negotiations by Brunel meant she was trapped in Bristol harbour for a year and a half until December 1844.
She finally embarked on her maiden voyage two years after she launched, on July 26th 1845. She failed to break the speed record on her journey from Liverpool to New York, and passenger numbers were low. Her fortunes continued to wain when, on her third trip of the 1846 season, she ran aground off the coast of Ireland. She stayed stuck there for almost a year, floated free in August 1847 and towed to Liverpool with the last of her company’s funds. In such a damaged state, she was sold for the bargain basement price of £3m in today’s money. This sounds like a lot but not when you know she cost nearly £14m to build just 7 years earlier.
Keep walking to hear about the next phase of the SS Great Britain's life.
Head between the buildings directly ahead and slightly left, following the path between them and continuing along the river.
In 1847, the newly-sold SS Great Britain was now entirely refitted again. She was equipped with smaller engines and double both passenger and cargo spaces. She completed one round trip to New York before being sold again and starting the Australia run in 1852. This was thanks to huge demand from the Victoria gold rush of 1851. She ran this route for 30 years and was converted again, into a coal ship in 1882. Her route took her across the Atlantic once more, from the UK to the west coast of America until 1886. She then ran aground in the Falklands Island after an on-board fire. Deemed beyond repair, she was sold to be used as a floating coal bunker until 1937. In a rotten, decrepit state, she was towed to shallow water, scuttled and abandoned.
Keep walking and we'll pick up on how she was saved from a sad end and allowed a new beginning. You'll hear from me again in a minute.
Cross the footbridge
Continue straight across the blue footbridge and keep following the river.
The SS Great Britain, once the largest and most advanced ocean-going ship in the world, was a shadow of her former self by 1937.
She sat rotten and disregarded off the coast of the Falkland Islands where she would remain for 33 years. It wasn't until April 1970 that plans were made to bring her home. This was largely thanks to two men. A plan masterminded by Lord Euan Strathcona and bankrolled by millionaire businessman Jack Hayward. It was formed after what was described as a “good dinner”.
It was the most ambitious salvage operation ever planned. Her rotten iron hull was patched up using old Royal Navy mattresses that were screwed into place behind plywood boards. Sufficient to refloat her, she took one final voyage. A seven week journey, towed aboard her pontoon, was the SS Great Britain's 47th crossing of the Atlantic and her first in 84 years. She returned to Bristol in summer 1970 with 100,000 people lining the streets to see her. Towed up the river Avon directly underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge, this marked the only time Brunel's two iconic creations would pass each other. She was returned to the same dry dock she left on the same day she left it, July 19th, after 126 years away from home. After an extensive refurbishment, the SS Great Britain is preserved as she was in 1843 and enjoyed by 150,000 visitors a year.
Keep walking and we'll draw closer to the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Continue past the Pumphouse pub or stop for a beer if you like! Otherwise keep going, following the ramp through the car park and up to the road.
The road over Cumberland Basin
Cross the road carefully, then turn left to cross the bridge to the opposite side of the vast Cumberland basin, Enjoying the view while you walk.
I'll meet you on the other side.
Turn right down the ramp and continue straight, keeping the Cumberland Basin on your right.
With Brunel's crowning glory of the SS Great Britain behind us, we can remind ourselves of his other achievements. We'll learn a lot more about the Clifton Suspension Bridge shortly but Brunel's Great Western Railway that we mentioned at the start of our walk is an achievement that can't be overlooked. He almost singlehandedly turned the railways from an industrial endeavour to one that centred around passengers. In this way, he changed the face of the world.
The first commercial railway was opened in the the north of England, between Stockon and Darlington, in 1825. From there, railways spread across the British Empire and spanned America at a time when it was largely unsettled. This all started with Brunel. His Great Western mainline ran 119 miles and was built with the passenger in mind. Brunel wanted a smooth ride the entire way. He went to great lengths to avoid all hills and inclines, which led to the line's nickname of Brunel's Billiard Table. The line is punctuated by soaring viaducts and vast tunnels, all built by Brunel, including the famous Box Tunnel at Bath. An unlined tunnel over two miles long, it was started in 1838. Built in three years as an unlined tunnel, construction work was lit by candles and hand-blasted by an army of navvies using dynamite. All other experts said the tunnel wouldn't hold if unlined. Yet it remains today, but not without cost. So dangerous was the work to make it that a higher percentage of navvies died building the tunnel than died in the trenches of World War One.
Before he started on the Box Tunnel, work on Brunel’s own Clifton Suspension Bridge had started and stopped again. It ultimately wasn't finished until after his death.
Keep walking towards the bridge that spans the basin and I'll tell you why...
Under the bridge
Keep walking along the narrow walkway that continues under the bridge.
First sight of the Suspension Bridge
Continue walking underneath the bridge. As we emerge back into the daylight, look up and to the right. The Clifton Suspension Bridge will slowly come into view.
Pay attention to the rusted metal structure laying parallel to the waterway. This is the Brunel Swivel Bridge, the only abandoned Brunel construction in Bristol. Originally built in 1849 and replaced with the swing bridge we just walked under, there is an on-going effort to restore it.
More eye-catching is the massive lock to your right, that marks the entrance to Bristol’s floating harbour that was built between 1802 and 1809, right when Brunel was born.
Continue straight, walking ahead to the very top of the lock as the Clifton Suspension Bridge comes into view.
The mouth of the lock
Walk to the end of the lock landing and stand (carefully!), allowing for a breathtaking view on the gorge and the bridge that straddles it. Let's stop here for a moment to admire the view and remind ourselves of where we left the bridge.
By 1831 Brunel had won the design contest to build across the gorge's span. This was an enormous task, as the Avon is the country’s deepest gorge at 250 feet and over 700 feet across. After the riots of 1831, the political uncertainty around Bristol meant construction stalled until 1836. At that point, with the stone towers in place, a steel bar 1000 feet long was strung across the gorge. This was to pull material back and forth in a small basket. Understandably nervous at climbing into a small basket at a great height, Brunel decided to demonstrate its safety by being the first to use it. He climbed in and pulled himself across the precipice. All went smoothly until the middle of the bar, when the rope became stuck, and Brunel was stranded. To sort himself out, Brunel climbed out the basket, shimmied along the iron bar, freed the rope, then climbed back in and continued! Such a cavalier attitude led to a pub named in his honour opposite his own Temple Meads station, named ‘The Reckless Engineer’!
[2 SECOND PAUSE]
Now, turn so your back is facing the end of the lock. To your left, Can you see the narrow bridge that spans over the top of the lock gates? Cross over it and turn right, heading towards the footbridge over the road.
Cross the footbridge
Walk up the ramp and cross the footbridge over the road. I'll meet you on the other side.
Turn left at Freeland Place
Turn left here and walk down the road. I'll meet you at the bottom.
Up the side of the gorge
Exit through the small gateway next to the building and turn right, walking up the side of the busy road that runs along the bottom of the gorge. We're getting closer to the suspension bridge.
This is the Hotwells area of Bristol, so named for their natural springs. In truth, these springs run warm rather than hot. Still they were sold from the 1600s as good for “hot livers, feeble brains and red pimply faces”. By Brunel's time, Hotwells had peaked as a holidaymaker destination in favour of nearby Bath. In their heyday in the 1850s, Brunel was nearing the end of his career and indeed the end of his life. His Suspension Bridge sat long-abandoned after his contractors went bankrupt in 1837. The stresses of building the Great Western Railway were giving Brunel nightmares.
Reckless in more ways that one, Brunel was known to smoke up to 40 cigars a day. Equally, he had a rather strange accident in 1843 when, in the midst of a conjuring trick, he managed to inhale a coin that became lodged in his windpipe. So he did what any self-respecting engineer would do, and invented a machine to remove it. Actually, he invented three. First, a special pair of forceps failed to grasp the coin. So did a machine that attempted to shake the coin loose. In the end, he was strapped to a table and turned upside down before the coin was jerked free. He recuperated in Teignmouth and settled in the area for the later years of his life, attempting to build a country home, Brunel Manor, that remained uncompleted at the time of his death.
Keep following the road and we'll hear how Brunel's bridge was completed after he died.
Clifton Rocks Railway
Continue straight along the road.
Work on Brunel's bridge had ground to a halt in 1837 and remained unfinished when Isambard Kingdom Brunel passed away in 1859. He suffered a stroke at the age of 53 and is buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. The following year, Brunel's old colleagues at the Institution of Civil Engineers felt that the bridge would be a fitting tribute to Brunel and made efforts to finish it. Work began again in 1862 and utilised some of the work Brunel did when he was alive.
Keep following the road past the now-abandoned lower station for the Clifton Rocks Railway.
Clifton Rocks Railway lower station
As we pass the Clifton Rocks Railway station, there's a small steep path to the right that leads up and away from the road. Follow that path. At the top is the suspension bridge's official viewpoint where we'll end our tour. So let's get walking.
In 1860, seeking to finally finish the suspension bridge, some of Brunel’s older work was cannibalised. Brunel built the first Hungerford Bridge that ran into London's Charing Cross station in 1845 but it was replaced in the early 1860s. The chains from this suspension bridge were bought and used in a refined plan for Brunel's suspension bridge at Clifton. Controversy remains to this day as to whether Brunel deserves final credit for the bridge's design. After his death, the roadway was raised, widened and made studier from Brunel's original design, by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw. The towers were left with a rough stone finish rather than the smooth Egyptian influence that Brunel had had in mind. He even originally planned to build sphinx sculptures on the top of the towers!
Either way, 33 years after breaking ground and 5 years after his death, Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864. The bridge is now managed by a charitable trust and crossed by 4 million toll-paying vehicles a year. It remains a spectacular sight as we'll see when we reach the top of the path and turn to the left.
Clifton Suspension Bridge viewpoint
Welcome to this iconic view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the last stop of our tour. It's a great place to snap a few pictures and enjoy the sight.
In having talked about boats, bridges and railways, it continues to impress me that Brunel's calling as a civil engineer benefits us today. Nowadays, most flagship construction consists of office buildings that most of us will never set foot in. For Brunel to lead from the front with amenities used by a wide range of people hundreds of years after they were built means he's one of our greatest Britons. He was in fact second place in a recent BBC poll to find the greatest Briton of all time, beaten to the top spot by the illustrious Winston Churchill!
If you're still keen to know more about the bridge, turn left up the hill and cross the bridge itself to see the official visitor centre museum with free entry. You can also head up the hill & turn right on Gloucester Row to Clifton Down Road for the 8 or 9 bus back to the city centre and Temple Meads station. Or head down the hill to either the White Lion or the Portcullis Pubs for a well-deserved beer!
Thanks for coming on today's journey and enjoy your time in Bristol!