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Saving Brunel’s Other Bridge

Saving Brunel’s Other Bridge
The opportunity to say you’ve worked on one of Brunel’s structures… well, that’s impossible to turn down!

Did you know that most important Brunel (of Being Brunel fame) bridge in Bristol lays abandoned; rotting away along the side of a dock? Although he wasn’t born there- the city owes a lot to his engineering efforts, and is arguably the home most celebrated for his achievements. The only abandoned Brunel structure in Bristol, this Grade 2* bridge is now listed as being at extreme risk on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register.

Before you run off to check the papers for news of the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s collapse, let me clarify- I’m talking about Brunel’s other bridge; the Howard’s Lock Swivel Bridge. Unlike its more celebrated cousin, which was largely a posthumous achievement completed by William Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw; the Swivel bridge was completed 15 years earlier- under the direct supervision of the man himself (although let’s not neglect to mention Brereton– who was probably responsible for most of the detailed design- Brunel was very much a Blue Sky thinker…)

The Swivel Bridge

It’s an early example of a wrought iron plate girder bridge, and his first tubular flanged bridge.

Before I continue, I should mention that there’s an exhibition on this structure at the Bristol Central Library from the 5th of January to the 15th of February; which will be much more comprehensive than my attempt!

But splitting hairs about the level of IK’s involvement isn’t what makes this bridge so very important; it’s an early example of a wrought iron plate girder bridge, and his first tubular flanged bridge. In the swivel bridge, to the initiated eye, we can see Brunel’s engineering development of plated girders and and tubular flanges that were echoed throughout his later career in the likes of the Royal Albert Bridge, or the Chepstow Railway Bridge.

Commissioned in 1844 the 33.7m long (23m nose) 68 tonne bridge was designed and built by Brunel and his staff in 1849 to carry traffic over the new south entrance lock (also by Brunel) to the Cumberland Basin. Originally rotated through a hand turned crank (like ye-olde train turntables), the swivel was replaced with a hydraulic mechanism in 1901. Perhaps most interestingly, the bridge was shortened and relocated to it’s current location at the north entrance in 1872-3, and then in 1875-6 a replica (differentiated only by it’s more modern section sizes) was built in the original position; presumably just to confuse future historians. Until the M5 was built it remained on a primary route; but in 1968, after the construction of the Plimsoll Bridge, it was decommissioned, and rotated one final time to be laid to rest under the new bridge.

Brunel’s Other Bridge

Of course, none of this is cheap; and the easiest way you can help save our engineering heritage is by making a donation.

Fantastically, however, a group (aptly named Brunel’s Other Bridge) have been working to save this monumental structure. The history of the bridge’s restoration has been an interesting one; it was almost saved by the Sustrans scheme in 2008, however the council were reluctant to restore the bridge (repairing and maintaining old infrastructure is a substantial risk). After a failed lottery funding attempt by Bristol’s Cycling City Team, however, the Clifton & Hotwells Improvement Society, Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society and Avon Industrial Building Trust decided to move forward, on the 12th of April 2013, and repair the bridge themselves, independent (but with agreement from) the council.

Since 2013 They have been raising funds and carrying out work to repair the structure using volunteers. This year they’ll be doing everything from paint analysis to jacking up the bridge! You can see the sorts of stuff they’ve been up to in their photos… Of course, none of this is cheap; and the easiest way you can help save our engineering heritage is by making a donation.

The best bit, to me at least, is that if you fancy chipping in; you can- no experience needed. Personally the chance to get my hands dirty and ground my life of analytical design with some honest labour is good enough; but the opportunity to say I’ve worked on one of Brunel’s structures… well, that’s impossible to turn down. So I’ll be offering to give up a weekend sometime this year (expect a chuffed article to come), and, if you want to move off of the theory and start doing the practical (surely this counts as C1-5), here are the provisional dates for 2015:

  • February 21-22
  • March 21-22
  • April 18-19
  • May 16-17
  • June 20-21
  • July 18-19
  • September 19-20
  • October 17-18

Click Here To Help Save Brunel’s Other Bridge!

This article owes an awful lot to Grace’s Guide, which is an amazing resource for industrial structures.

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