St Paul’s Cathedral. Edinburgh Castle. The Liver Building. Some structures become symbolic of the cities they stand in. Bristol’s defining landmark is the world-famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel called it ‘my first love, my darling’ but never saw his design completed. The bridge opened in 1864 five years after his death. Originally built for horse-drawn carriages, it now carries over a million cars per year.
Besides being a remarkable feat of engineering, the bridge is famous for its beauty. Its simple silhouette, a single span with a tower at each end, hangs like an elegant necklace across the dramatic Avon Gorge. The view of the bridge from Clifton Down is a sightseers’ favourite. Especially in August, when hundreds of hot air balloons waft by during the annual Bristol Balloon Fiesta.
Below the bridge, the Avon Gorge carries the River Avon into the Bristol Channel. This spectacular landform is 1½ miles long and over 300ft (91m) deep. The gorge’s size and shape create a micro-climate that is one degree warmer than the surrounding area. Several rare plants flourish on the banks, including unique species of onion and rock cress. The steep sides also provide ideal homes for bats and peregrine falcons.
According to local legends the Avon Gorge was created by two giant brothers, Vincent and Goram. Some versions say they dug it out after a girl called Avona asked them to drain a lake. From mythical giants, modern geologists still debate how it formed. The gorge takes the River Avon along an unusual route. Instead of cutting through the tough limestone of Clifton Down, the river could have followed a simpler course, along Ashton Vale towards Weston-Super-Mare.
Looking down from the bridge, it seems impossible that the Avon could have cut out the gorge. At low tide the water barely dribbles over banks of mud. Instead theories suggest that the Avon Gorge was created by ice. Around 450,000 years ago, the Anglian Ice Age covered the land of modern-day Bristol. The ice may have blocked the River Avon’s way through Ashton Vale.
Thick ice could have acted like a dam, holding back the river to form a lake. When the lake filled up, water would have poured out, cutting the immense gorge through Clifton Down. Maybe the myths of Vincent and Goram aren’t so far-fetched. Yet there are no remains of a lost lake, such as sediments or shore lines. Gazing across the Avon Gorge today, the mystery of its history adds to the allure of this gorgeous view.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!