On a blustery and cold April Saturday, a group of hardy Merchants Landing residents went on a guided tour of the Clifton Suspension Bridge vaults. The existence of these vaults was not known until 2002 when a builder, Ray Brown, discovered the first chamber beneath the Leigh Woods tower when replacing paving. The twelve vaults were designed to support the weight of the tower and transfer the weight of the bridge into the rock face. Previously it was thought the tower was set on solid foundations.
The tour was led by Gordon Young (red hat in the photograph on the left), whose wide-ranging commentary was most informative. Before the vault tour began he pointed out some interesting features of Brunel’s bridge. The towers are not identical – the arch on the Leigh Woods side being more pointed than the Clifton tower, which also has side cut-outs. The three independent chains are anchored 50 feet below the roadway. The chains allow movement of the bridge vertically and from side to side. Gordon invited us to ‘feel the bridge’s pulse’ when a car went passed. The bridge copes well with windy weather – it has only been closed once in living memory because of high winds, though the Bridgemaster has a wind-speed indicator on her desk.
The highlight of the tour was entering two of the vaults (four and five). Before doing this we had to don high-viz jackets and hard hats. Access to the vaults was through a locked gate, down a cinder path and a steep metal ladder to the entrance hewn through to vault four. Vaults four and five are connected by a short but low tunnel. With their cathedral-like interiors and straw-stalactites hanging from the arched ceilings, both vaults surprised us by their height and atmosphere. Gordon asked for a moment of silence so we could appreciate how no sound intruded from the busy road-way above. The vaults proved to be a memorable end to an excellent tour.
Many thanks to Jan Walsh for organising the tour.