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Clifton Tourist Information
Clifton was, and still has a flavour of, the ‘well-to-do’ area outside the city of Bristol where merchants had their grand houses staffed with servants. Clifton now joins Bristol with attractive Georgian terraces, boutique shops and cafe lined streets.
There are stunning views of Brunel’s Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge from Clifton – views that have been the inspiration of paintings by artists including Gainsborough who settled in Bristol in 1760. Bristol Zoo and Gardens lies between Clifton and Westbury Park and the Royal West of England Academy of Arts is based in Clifton.
Things to do & see in Clifton
Clifton lies to the west of the city centre with its leafy parks and Georgian terraces. These had much of their origins in the tobacco and slave trade – the profits of which built much of Clifton. Clifton was separate from the city of Bristol until the Georgian expansion made it part of the city. Royal York Terrace is one of the most famous Georgian terraces that overlooks the Avon Gorge and can be seen from Bristol docks.
Whiteladies Road in Clifton is where you’ll find a good choice of shopping, bars and restaurants along with Clifton Village. Clifton is surrounded by Clifton Down to the west, Westbury Park to the north and the Ashton Court Estate across the River Avon – location of the annual Long Ashton Bristol Balloon Fiesta where you can see an amazing array of brightly coloured hot air balloons.
Royal West of England Academy of Arts
The Royal West of England Academy of Arts is one of the five Royal Academies of Art in the UK. It is housed in a grand Grade II listed building in Clifton in Bristol’s West End.
The permanent fine art collection started from a bequest to the Academy by Ellen Sharples in 1849. It contains paintings by nineteenth century artists and has grown by additions from artist members through the twentieth century to the present day.
A range of paintings, sculptures and photographs are exhibited in five naturally lit galleries and the New Gallery. The RWA holds two open exhibitions every year: one that showcases sculpture, painting or printmaking, the second, the Autumn Exhibition, comprises mixed disciplines from both national and international artists.
Bristol Zoo is based in Clifton just along the A4176 near Westbury Park. It is a fantastic family day out with over 400 animal species from gorillas to millipedes. The 12 acre site houses a variety of outdoor enclosures as well as indoor environments for exotic animals ranging from lions, gorillas, monkeys, seals and penguins, and even endangered native UK species such as water voles.
Areas are themed to show animals from different parts of the world or different habitats like The Aquarium and Wallace Aviary or Zona Brazil that recreates the Brazilian rainforest habitat used by tapirs, capybara and gold lion tamarins. There are loads of interactive things for the kids to get involved in too like face painting and badge making in The Activity Centre or the Zoolympics
Clifton Suspension Bridge
Another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s structures in Bristol is the famous landmark, Clifton Suspension Bridge. It’s a stunning and iconic sight straddling the Avon Gorge. The bridge was built after an open competition was held to find a design for the bridge. Thomas Telford, the judge for the competition, interestingly rejected all the designs in favour of his own! A second competition was then held, obviously with new judges, and this is the one that Brunel won.
The Bristol Riots of 1831 put a temporary stop to the bridge’s construction. Brunel was a designated special constable during the riots. Work didn’t start again until 1836 and the finances to fund the project caused problems from then on. Brunel didn’t live long enough to see the bridge completed and it was his colleagues from the Institution of Civil Engineers that felt it would a fitting memorial to him to finish it.
The chains from Brunel’s Hungerford suspension bridge were used at Clifton and a slightly altered design has made the deck slightly wider, higher and sturdier than Brunel’s original design. It was finally completed in 1862. The bridge is now run by a Trust who raise funds for the upkeep of the bridge through tolls for vehicles. Pedestrians and cyclists can cross the suspension bridge free of charge. A visitor centre is on the Leigh Woods side.
Clifton Observatory and Camera Obscura
Good views of the gorge and the suspension bridge can be seen from the Clifton Observatory and Camera Obscura on the hill on the Downs up from Suspension Bridge Road. The Observatory was originally built in 1766 as a windmill for grinding corn and was later converted to grind snuff at which time it became known as the "Snuff Mill". It was partially destroyed in a gale in 1777.
The Camera Obscura was installed in 1828 by artist William West who was renting the mill as his studio. It gives a 360 degree view of the stunning panorama from the Observatory reflected from a convex lens and sloping mirror on top of the building onto a white surface in a darkened room. Admission to Clifton Observatory is free.
Leading away from the Observatory with views down into the gorge is a pleasant woodland walk along the gorge. During his time here William West also cut an underground tunnel to St Vincent’s Cave which opens out from the gorge 250 feet above the valley floor. The cave is thought to have once been connected to a chapel which his first mentioned in AD305.
Avon Gorge National Nature Reserve
The steep sided limestone Avon Gorge runs under the bridge from Bristol to Clevedon on the coast. It is home to a varied range of wildlife including woodland, scrub and limestone grassland where you can find rare plant species such as Bristol and Wilmotts’s whitebeams, green hellebore, Bristol rock cress, Bristol onion, spiked speedwell, autumn squill and honewort. Peregrine falcons can often be seen hunting along the gorge and you’ll often see and hear jackdaws particularly on the bridge buttresses. Rare horseshoe bats have also managed to make a home here in caves in the gorge as well as the buttresses.
The Avon Gorge is protected as both a national Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as an internationally important site due to its woodlands that include small-leaved lime and the rare whitebeams. Leigh Woods which are on the west side of the River Avon, west of Clifton is a National Nature Reserve. For a water’s-eye view of Clifton Suspension Bridge and Avon Gorge take a boat trip along the River Avon.
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