Left to go to ruin, Brunel’s swivel bridge sits derelict in the Cumberland Basin area of Bristol. Positioned in a unique situation, enabling the onlooker to witness not one, but three generations of swivel bridge, Brunel’s Other Bridge is neglected but never forgotten.
Brunel’s “Other” Bridge was constructed in 1849, designed to carry traffic over the new South Entrance Lock (‘Brunel’s Lock’) in the Cumberland Basin. Brunel’s South lock now lies disused and somewhat in the shadows of the towering, Clifton Suspension Bridge (completed 15 years later). Brunel’s Other Bridge is sadly deteriorating and risks being lost unless action is taken.
A passionate and dedicated team of volunteers including The Avon Industrial Buildings Trust, the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society and the Clifton & Hotwells Improvement Society, have ploughed their time, money and expertise into the redemption project for the past three years.
I met with volunteer Maggie Shapland of the Bristol Industrial Archeological Society who talks me through the history of one of Brunel’s prestigious engineering triumphs. Before we approach the bridge, Maggie leafs through the pages of a series of archival photographs from Bristol Records Office dating back to 1860, which show the scale of the bridge that was originally designed and built by Brunel alongside his colleague, Robert Pearson Brereton (one of three Brereton brothers, hailing from Norfolk, all of whom were successful engineers), who also worked with Brunel on the Great Western Railway.
A grade 2* listed bridge, it is currently on the English Heritage’s Buildings At Risk Register. Affectionately known as Bob, Brunel’s Other Bridge is sadly left to go to ruin, the only of Brunel’s vast legacy to have been neglected. Located in the Cumberland Basin area of Bristol’s Hotwells region, it is easy to forgive the eye who looks beyond, to the great magnitude of the Clifton Suspension bridge in the near distance. Yet, this structure is a rarity – being Brunel’s first wrought iron, opening bridge. Uniquely, Brunel’s swivel bridge is an early example of a wrought iron plate girder bridge, and in fact, Brunel’s first tubular flanged bridge. Today, many of the original features remain in tact including the rivets and the tracks on which the bridge would operate. But even to the untrained eye, it is clear that the bridge is suffering a great deal of neglect – resulting in its degradation from weathering.
Brunel’s Other Bridge was built in the shipyard where the ss Great Britain now resides. Somewhere between 1872 – 1873, the bridge was shortened and relocated to Howard’s Lock, with a replica being built in its place around the time of 1875 – 1876. Originally operating by hand, it was converted to a hydraulic system using fresh water from a pressurised water system in Underfall Yard.
“This is the only place you can see three generations of swing bridge without moving from the spot.”
Between 1901 – 1902, the hydraulic machinery of the lock was renewed by Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd of Newcastle Upon Tyne. In 1965, the bridge was decommissioned after the construction of the Plimsoll Bridge which can be seen today. Upon realising it was a Brunel bridge, former city docks engineer David Neale saved the bridge from being scrapped.
Maggie explains: “It was originally suggested cutting the bridge into three pieces, floating it down the river and mending it elsewhere, because they did not think it could be repaired in situ. But you don’t have to be an engineer to realise that if you cut a bridge like this into three, then you’d never be able to put it back together again, because you would have stressed it out of its little brain.”
So far, the work has taken the form of volunteer-led sessions, including jacking up the bridge in order to get under the bridge itself to clean out the rust and assess the situation. If left to disrepair, it is very possible that the bridge will never be able to operate again.
The project attracts volunteers from various backgrounds including engineering students who are able to learn on the job, with guidance freely offered by experts. So far, the project has received a grant from English Heritage but largely, has been entirely self-funded. The team are fortunate to be working under Geoff Wallis who has over 40 years experience of architectural conservation, structural metalwork and historic machinery.
Once they have confirmation of the exact funding required, they will be able to put forward their case to other funding organisations including the Lottery Fund and also approach local businesses and corporations for donations too. The estimated total costs of restoring the bridge and putting it back into commission is £695,000 and would take 9 months.
“You’ve got to think of all the scenarios of risk. Costings, mechanics…” Maggie explains.
There have been conversations as to the future (or demise) of Brunel’s Other Bridge for quite some years, with no real solution to be agreed upon. Yet, with every passing year, the weathering of this now defunct bridge will take its toll and eventually cause the structure to entirely collapse and rot. Maggie and the team feel strongly that it is their duty with help from volunteers and external investors to save it from its fate.
“This is the only place you can see three generations of swing bridge without moving from the spot. You’ve got the original built in 1849. The second generation built in 1925. And the third generation built in 1965. Then the 1906 Ashton Swing bridge behind. Then you have the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Bristol is a city of bridges.” Maggie says.
With support from English Heritage, who donated funding to the project, the small but dedicated team have been able to purchase the basic tools required to carry out their tasks. Including physically manoeuvring and jacking up the bridge in order to access the underbelly and clear away the vast quantity of rust and debris which has accumulated over the years, and investigate the repairs needed.
“As we first jacked it up, the ground sank, which was quite entertaining.” Maggie recalls.
The bridge is a beautiful, sturdy reminder of the workmanship that went into engineering especially during Brunel’s lifetime with real attention to detail, including rivets which were heated and fed through the structure from one side to the other, making for an invincible structure. To see these efforts and such a vital part of Bristol’s history go to waste, would be areal shame. Today, you can still see the original tracks the swivel bridge would have operated on, and there is even a sizeable dent to the far side, evidence of a passing ship that clearly misjudged its girth. Like an aged oak, it has witnessed the passing of years, beyond what the average human life can comprehend.
Volunteers meet monthly (and more frequently where possible) and work to clean away rust and debris which are causing the structure to decompose. With varying backgrounds, some of whom come from the engineering fields, the project also attracts current engineering students who are eager to learn the real, workings behind such a masterpiece of a bridge left behind by the great Brunel.
“Historic England have been very good to us. The bridge is a real asset to Bristol and they are desperate to get it off the At Risk Register. They provided us with several grants towards further project development and investigative work which we could not do ourselves to enable more accurate costings and thus reduce risk.” Maggie explains.
Not only will this project breathe new life into such a historic relic of Bristol’s fabric, forming part of the Brunel trail, it will also be a point of both educational, economical and historical interest being situated along a planned cycle and walking path that runs alongside the River Avon and towards the Cumberland Basin, below the Clifton Suspension bridge. It will also improve access across the lock and make the bridge much more user-friendly.
Archival photographs are a testament to its active, former life as a working swivel bridge. Without the persistence of a small handful of volunteers who care deeply about its future, it wont be long before all we have left as reminders, are these photographs.
Wouldn’t it be wiser, and more longsighted, to leave something behind for future generations to witness, just as the rest of Brunel’s legacy throughout Bristol remains?
To follow the progress of Brunel’s Other Bridge and make a donation to the project, please visit: www.brunelsotherbridge.org.uk
There are a series of work dates, should you wish to volunteer, planned for 2016 – these are subject to change, but are currently listed as follows:
- 28 May
- 18 June
- 16 July
- 20 August
- 10 September
- 15 October
(There will also be a display on Doors Open Day on Sunday 11 September): www.bristoldoorsopenday.org.uk
Main Image: Bristol Records Office & Port of Bristol Authority
All Images (unless otherwise stated): Demelza Durston