Bristol – 2: A Day in Clifton

My first day’s excursion has to be around Clifton. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is top of my list of things to see. The stroll through Clifton in the morning sunshine is very pleasant. Clifton developed into an affluent suburb in the late eighteenth century. It occupies the high ground above the city between Whiteladies Road at the top of Park Street and the Avon Gorge to the west. It’s a pleasant, Georgian and Victorian environment consisting mostly of tall, elegant terraces. It is reminiscent of Dublin 4, though quieter and more intimate. Even many of the street names match with Lansdowne and Pembroke Roads. 

I skirt Clifton Village with its lovely arcade and plenty of sunshine sidewalk cafes, before zigzagging vaguely uphill. There’s parkland along the summit, and prominent here is the Clifton Observatory. There’s a wee coffee shop where I can catch my breath. So good I use it twice. At first to relax over a strong coffee and again to recover with something harder after my visit.

The tower has panoramic views over the gorge with bits of Bristol peeking through the trees beyond Clifton Downs. Built in 1776 as a windmill, it was bought by  William West who converted it into his art studio. Indulging his passion for photography, he installed the Camera Obscura, meaning dark room, in 1828. The camera took advantage of the spectacular views of the Clifton Downs and the Avon Gorge, further enhanced by Brunel’s suspension bridge of 1864.

I take the full ticket, with entry to the Camera Obscura above and the Giant’s Cave somewhere below. A lady is ahead of me in the queue for the Camera and kindly offers to share the dark room with me. I’m glad of this as it soothes the experience of being in the dark, atop a tower, with the ghostlike apparition of the giddy panorama somehow all around. She also knows how to operate the thing which would probably have mystified me. It is very addictive. There’s a hint of the confessional in the darkness and the hush, without the padre but the presence of God, and the serene lady. By myself I would probably have left scratch marks on the walls, but spent several magic moments within the ancient and modern contraption before finding the door after only a few attempts. 

West cut the steep descending passage to the Giant’s Cave. It’s a long way down and my incipient claustrophobia, triggered by the dark room, waxes some more as the passageway gets ever narrower. And then there’s the thought of having to retrace my steps, all of them, all of those steps. I break out into the cave at something of a gallop but don’t tarry long as I rush onto the viewing platform. This juts out of the cliff face with well nigh 360 degree views of the bridge and gorge. Great, claustrophobia and vertigo. It really is stunning. Soaking all in, as much as I can, I quickly clamber up to the open air, regretting I’m not young anymore but very glad to be alive. And my second visit to the 360 degree Glass Cafe offers wonderful views and refreshments, including a welcome bottle of beer. All that and Amy Winehouse singing Valerie on the sound system. Life can be perfect, sometimes.

Well, sometimes I go out by myself

And I look across the water

And I think of all the things of what you’re doing

In my head I paint a picture

And then it’s time for another cliffhanger. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol’s most awesome icon, was conceived by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in response to a competition to choose a bridge to span the gorge. Brunel’s design won, or at least he convinced the judges that it did, and he received the contract to proceed. Construction was beset with problems. The Bristol Riots of 1831 halted construction and investors backed out. Work resumed five years later but was dogged by funding problems. The project was abandoned in 1843 with only the towers completed. Brunel died in 1859 and so never saw his project brought to fruition. Admirers at the Institute of Civil Engineers reckoned that completing the bridge would be a fitting memorial to the great man and a revised design by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw was begun in 1862 and opened in 1864.

Brunel’s design had a sphinx atop each tower, but these never materialised. It’s still mighty impressive. The towers do have a certain Egyptian slant and rise to 100 metres above high tide. The bridge has a clearance of 75 metres, a span of 214 metres and a total length over 400 metres.

I walk across the bridge and back. There are few comparable walking on air experiences. I’ve cycled across the Golden Gate, walked and driven over the Hoover Dam, and taken a few tentative steps along the Firth of Forth Bridge. This is right up there, and I mean up. It’s giddy-making and transcendent. There’s a visitors centre on the Leigh Woods side in Somerset but I’m in a special place and continue back to the Clifton side. I am enjoying a long, and I hope visibly poetic, view across the gorge when I sense someone entering my space. 

Hello there, you alright there, mate? It’s a genial man, in the livery of the Bridge company. I inform him of my happiness, something not always apparent in my countenance, and consider that people are extraordinarily nice in Bristol.  And then I understand where he’s coming from. The bridge is also, balefully, a renowned suicide spot. Plaques advertise the number of the Samaritans and monitors regularly patrol. In 1885 a young barmaid, Sarah Henley, jumped from the bridge. Her voluminous skirts acted as a parachute and she landed safely, if embarrassingly, in the soft mud of the Avon at low tide. She lived into her eighties.

I assure the man that I’ve read the plaques, although that may only confirm his suspicions. I tell him it’s great to be alive. I had hoped to click my heels jauntily while departing, but the old legs aren’t quite up to it, so I stroll, with as much mirth as I can muster, back to Clifton Village. 

Clifton Village itself is wearing a happy face in the sunshine. I potter about the shops and the cafes. There’s an upmarket but bohemian vibe abroad, a palpable sense of Santa Monica in the straight streets, the faded fin de siecle facades. I stop for refreshment on the pavement along Princess Victoria Street. While reviewing my photography, my phones battery dies and I must head back to the hotel to recharge. 

It’s time for a late lunch anyhow. Racks Bar is empty, it was packed yesterday. The bargirl asks me how my day has been going and I tell her. Ultimately it’s all about being glad to be alive. I must apologise to the queue that’s formed behind, hopefully enjoying my tale. Outside the sun is blazing and I relax over a falafel and a foaming beer. Amy Winehouse is playing, same as at Clifton Observatory. Two perfect moments in one day.

Oh, won’t you come on over?

Stop making a fool out of me

Why don’t you come on over, Valerie?

Valerie was originally a song by the Zutons, a Liverpool band of the Noughties. It was written by their frontman, Dave McCabe, though credited to the full band. McCabe wrote it in a cab, a kiss blown westwards to his ex, an American girl called Valerie Star. It features on the album, Tired of Hanging Around from 2006. Winehouse’s cover is found on her producer Mark Ronson’s album Version, released the following year.

5 thoughts on “Bristol – 2: A Day in Clifton

    • Hey Samantha, I think you’d appreciate Bristol for sure. It abounds in historical, literary and artistic connections. Thanks for your comments, I’m happy that my prose and photography rhymed.

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