On the Rocks


I am taking a trip down memory lane this week with photos of Bristol, specifically those inspired by views from the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I spent a lot of time here as part of my PhD dissertation about archaeological interpretation: in addition to the world famous bridge, it’s an area rich in industrial heritage deserving a closer look.

The Clifton Rocks Railway in particular is often overshadowed by other 19th century engineering triumphs, especially those designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel: the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the original Temple Meads Railway Station, the SS Great Britain. However, this was one of Bristol’s most audacious undertakings—a railway through solid rock.

Sir George Newnes was responsible for the Lynmouth to Lynton funicular railway, which is still running today, and he thought a similar railway climbing the Avon Gorge would be a good investment. However, the idea was initially rejected because it would ruin the view; instead plans were drawn up to place the railway inside the rocks so the view of the Gorge would remain unchanged. Newnes received his approval.

Tunneling through the rocks began in 1891, and the tunnel was dug from both ends, with the crews heading towards the centre. They fortunately met in the middle, but it took two years and £30,000, which was twice as long and three times more expensive than originally planned.

But that £30,000 bought the most up-to-date funicular technology. The cars were drawn by the water balance technique, in which the top car was weighted with enough water to pull up the bottom car as the initial one descended. To achieve the right balance, the operator in the bottom car used an electric telegraph to signal to conductor of the top car how many passengers were being carried. Each car also had three sets of brakes, including one that would be activated in case the cable snapped.

When the railway opened in 1893, over 6000 people made the journey on the first day, and the novelty of the ride attracted nearly 11,000 passengers a week for the first year of operation. At the time, it cost a penny to go up to Clifton, and ha’penny to descend.

However, numbers began to decline as transportation routes to Clifton improved, and the railway was eventually closed for good in 1934. The Second World War saw the tunnels being put to new use, as an air raid shelter and an emergency studio for the BBC. Parts of the tunnel were also used to repair the barrage balloons that defended against low flying aircraft. After the war, the BBC continued to use the station until 1960, but it has lain vacant since.

The Clifton Rocks Railway Trust is trying to breathe life back into this marvel and are working to restore parts. If you happen to be in Bristol during one of their open days, it’s definitely worth a closer look.


On Thursday, I’ll be “observing” another Bristol landmark visible from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, so come back then to learn more. Also as promised, here’s another one of my Bristol designs; stay tuned to see what they will be turning into!

Bristol Hot Air Balloon, design by Elaine Massung
Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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