Observing History

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A key part of my PhD dissertation involved creating a working prototype of a location-based guide for a heritage site.  Bristol doesn’t have a shortage of these: from Civil War defences on Brandon Hill to the eponymous castle of Castle Park, the difficulty is in just choosing one!  In the end, my supervisor and I agreed on the Clifton Suspension Bridge: not only is the history of the bridge itself fascinating, but there are a number of other sites visible to visitors as they stroll along the pedestrian walkway.

For example, this unusually shaped stone building overlooking the Avon Gorge is now known as the Clifton Observatory, but it has undergone many transformations over its lifetime.  Pre-dating the Clifton Suspension Bridge, it was originally constructed in 1766 as a windmill and used to produce snuff.  A decade later, a gale caused the sails of the windmill to spin too fast, starting a fire that left the building in ruins for 50 years, until it was purchased by artist William West to use as a studio.  West installed telescopes and a camera obscura in the tower to provide views over the picturesque Gorge and Leigh Woods, and the camera obscura can still be visited today.

And can you see the railings in the lower left?  That’s Giant’s Cave.  Much like the Observatory, the Giant’s Cave has also been known by many different names over its long history, including St. Vincent’s Chapel, Fox Hole and Ghyston’s Cave, so-called after one of the mythical giants who constructed the Avon Gorge.  Its origins, however, are shrouded in mystery, with some claiming that it was used as a chapel as early as 305 AD, before becoming a hermitage dedicated to St. Vincent.  In the early 19th century, a gang of robbers used the cave as a hideout, but this was not to last; in 1837 William West excavated a 200 foot tunnel from the Observatory into the cave and opened it to the public.

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And here’s one more view of Bristol … come back on Saturday to see how these photos are being used, or check out Redbubble for a preview.

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Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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