Twenty years ago, contractors made an incredible and accidental discovery of secret vaults hidden beneath the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Today, to celebrate the anniversary, there’s a brand new experience available with tours using a new platform has been built in the largest of the 12 chambers to allow easier access and more people to witness the spectacle.
Unsurprisingly, the tickets are being snapped up incredibly quickly, with the first set of tickets selling out in under three hours. But, if you’re speedy, there are still a few slots left for next week and they are looking to put more dates on for summer to keep up with demand.
BristolWorld managed to step inside for a sneak peek, so let’s take a look at what you could discover.
A hidden gem
The Suspension Bridge might be the most iconic structure in the south west, but not many people know of the secrets that lie beneath.
Discovered accidentally in 2002 when contractors were repairing the pavement on the bridge above, Brunel’s vaults had been forgotten about and filled with rubble in the access areas for 162 years.
The rabbit warren of vaults includes 12 chambers of different sizes, although the deeper ones are only accessed with specialist safety gear and harnesses.
Few people know of the vaults, despite their discovery 20 years ago, or some people have a suspicion they are there but don’t know how to get into them or whereabouts they are.
“They are one of those urban myths,” laughs Laura Hilton, the Visitor Experience Manager for Clifton Suspension Bridge.
“We get people who come to the Visitor Centre and ask if it’s true that a lady fell off the bridge and her dress acted as a parachute and, yes, it is true! But now we get people coming in and asking if it’s true that there are secret caves beneath the famous bridge and, yes, it is true!
“To be able to bring in more groups more often is amazing. Having a family tour will really help children to understand the space a bit more. The first-ever family comes in here on Monday!”
Why are the vaults there and how were they found? “The vaults are completely man-made by Isambard Brunel and his team of builders, and they were one of the first parts of the bridge that was constructed,” says Ms Hilton.
“It exists because the people who were funding the bridge thought that his original design was too long and the two towers needed to be closer together, so this is the platform for the bridge tower to be put on top of.
“It was built in stages up towards the top and the builders will have taken everything up with them as they left. So, when it was discovered, there was pretty much nothing in here.”
Although engineers always thought they might be here, they didn’t expect them to be quite so huge. The chambers are now monitored and expected every year, to see what the rocks are doing and how the structure is upholding.
“They were built with so much stone and they are so strong, so over all of that time that they were just left to be, pretty much nothing had happened and they had held their own,” explains Ms Hilton.
There’s a lot that people don’t know about the hidden history of the bridge, and one of those things is that the vaults are exactly as they were found.
“This is exactly what was found, apart from the lights and new decking. It was completely sealed shut and I don’t think Isambard Brunel would have ever expected tours to be taking place!” says Etain O’Shea, the Learning Officer at the Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre.
“We didn’t find any treasure or anything, just a few clay smoking pipes which you can see in our Visitor Centre. There were no animals or bugs or anything, but you might see the odd spider now. There wasn’t even a distinctive smell!”
What to expect
So, what can youngsters (and adults!) expect from the newly introduced family Vaults Visits? For years, children may have been used to taking a walk across the bridge but now they will have the opportunity to tell their friends and family about the inner workings of the well-known site.
To start, families will be kitted out with a hard hat, before they will climb down the ladder to the impressive underground echo chamber 11 metres high. Made up of lime mortar, with lots of calcium carbonate in it, the vaults have years of stalactites and stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, making for an incredibly beautiful and atmospheric visit.
The tour will include a sensory map to follow as you explore the largest and most significant of the twelve stone vaults. Expect a humid temperature of 12.5 degrees (this temperature stays constant all-year-round), and a lot of echoes, which only add to the unique atmosphere of the vaults.
With a brand new deck, that allows people to see more of the vaults than ever before, there is plenty to capture the interest of all ages while wandering around the underground chamber. From areas of danger and no access to sections that show the feat of engineering and 13 metre thick walls, the 40-minute tour will quickly pass.
“It’s more of a self-guided experience in the vaults so families can come down and roam around at their own pace,” says Ms O’Shea.
“They will have a map that will explain different historical points and they will be able to spot different facts with lots of sensory elements to point out and think about. We’ll have our learning facilitators in here too to answer any questions.”
Families will learn exactly how it was built. “When you remind children that this was built during the Victorian times when there was no modern machinery, they are even more in awe of a space like this,” continues Ms O’Shea.
“The whole experience of putting on a hard hat and high vis, feeling like an engineer on a day out, coming down the ladder and then coming into the space and knowing that you are inside the Suspension Bridge will hopefully be amazing.”
Tours are suitable for ages 7+ and under 18s must be accompanied by an adult. There is a minimum height limit of 1.2m. For more information and to book tickets, visit cliftonbridge.org.uk/family-friendly-vaults-visit/