News / Transport

Brunel’s other bridge

By mike white, Thursday Jan 22, 2015

Pop quiz: name the historic Bristol bridge that was groundbreaking in its day, remains a pioneering achievement in engineering and was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 

Nope, not the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It’s the Swivel Bridge, in the middle of the maze of roads that today make up the Cumberland Basin.

Although arguably of greater importance than the Suspension Bridge, this Grade II* listed bridge is now derelict and in danger of simply rusting away. Which is why a team of local volunteers has united to restore it to its former glory. 

“There’s no other bridge like it,” says Maggie Shapland, who’s part of a group fighting to save the structure. “It was a real experiment for Brunel, the first bridge of its type in the world. It’s really important in terms of the design principles used, the groundbreaking engineering and its close links to Bristol. Its role in education is vital too, from school children to graduate engineers. And it’s the only remaining major work by Brunel that’s still unrestored.” 

Maggie and her cohort have been working for more than two years to save the bridge, and have now created an exhibition in the foyer of Bristol Central Library to share their progress and invite others to get involved. The exhibition includes reproductions of Brunel’s original plans and notebook scribblings, as well as historic photographs and more recent pictures of the restoration team in action.

The bridge was designed by Brunel and staff at his Westminster office, and the famous stovepipe-hatted half-pint also oversaw its construction in the shipyard where the ss Great Britain now stands. The bridge is an imposing sight, some 110 feet long and weighing more than 68 tonnes. It is Brunel’s first attempt at a large, wrought iron opening bridge, and first became operational in October 1849.

The bridge served its purpose for more than a century, silently shouldering thousands of horse-drawn carriages, penny farthings and pedstrians before the thunderous advent of modern motoring. The swivel bridge finally became redundant in 1968 when the current flyover system was built. It remains as it was left, swung in the ‘open’ (to shipping) position, forgotten in the shadow of the modern swing bridge overhead.

Despite its importance as a structure, it looks more like a bit of old submarine than a groundbreaking piece of Victorian engineering. Walking past it today, you’d never guess that the swivel bridge is actually much older than the suspension bridge that towers over the gorge beyond.

As far back as 2008, plans were mooted to restore the swivel bridge for use as part of a cycle route, but these were later dropped. In 2011, meetings were held to prepare a bid for Heritage Lottery Funding to recommission the bridge, but the bid was unsuccessful and in 2012 it was decided that local groups could proceed with voluntary work and fundraising to secure the bridge’s future.

The plan is to restore it to full function, but limit its use to special occasions, rather than attempting to re-integrate with local transport infrastructure such as the National Cycle Network.  

After receiving piecemeal donations from local heritage groups, the bridge restoration team were awarded £35,000 from English Heritage for investigative work, because of the bridge’s ‘extreme at risk’ status. As yet, they “haven’t got a clue” how much complete restoration will cost.

“But all donations are gratefully received,” says Maggie, “even just a fiver will help.” 

In early 2013, a group of volunteers set to work to improve the bridge’s neglected appearance. They donned overalls and hardhats and began with the four main beams supporting the bridge deck. Bucketfuls of rust fell out, exposing large holes. In other places, the iron work had become perilously thin. It was clear that urgent action was needed to prevent Bristol losing an important landmark.  

Since then, the volunteers have continued to enjoy regular work parties, and the bridge is beginning to look loved. It’s been raised onto supporting sleepers and new signs have been installed. As well as donations, the team are always happy to welcome new volunteers – find out more by visiting the exhibition or visiting the Brunel’s Other Bridge website. 

Brunel’s Other Bridge runs at Bristol Central Library until February 15.

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