Impress Your Guests. With Knowledge.
So … you live in Bristol and you’ve got people visiting you for the weekend. You do Sunday lunch, after which it’s traditional for everyone to go for a walk across the Suspension Bridge. I only mention this because the weather forecast suggests the coming Sunday might be the last gasp of summer.
But to be a proper tour guide, to impress upon your visitors that Bristol is more complex, beautiful and just plain interesting than whatever dump they’re driving home to this evening, you need facts. Memorise the following Suspension Bridge facts. They are all true. I think. Maybe.
1. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but never finished in his lifetime. It was completed by fellow engineers as a tribute to him.
2. Work started on the 1830s, but kept being abandoned for lack of money. For years, the bare towers were a popular picnic-spot with Bristolians. Brunel had put a thick iron bar across the Gorge from which was slung a basket in which people and things travelled across. It was a popular local bare-knuckle ride. At other times, effigies of unpopular local or political figures were hung from it and people would blast at them with guns.
3. When it opened in 1864, 150,000 people turned up. Mary Griffiths, 21, of Hanham, was the first member of the public to cross it; she ran all the way as she was determined to beat everyone else.
4. Yes, lots of people have killed themselves by throwing themselves off it. That big concrete canopy over part of the Portway down below is, however, mostly to protect traffic from falling rocks, not falling people.
5. Yes, there was a Victorian woman whose life was saved after jumping off because her big skirts acted as a sort of parachute. But falling into soft mud helped a lot as well. Her name was Sarah Anne Henley and she lived to be very old.
6. They do say round these parts that if you’re near the Bridge at dusk as the shadows are lengthening, you can sometimes see flitting shades and shadows which are the ghosts of those who have jumped off.
7. People have flown aeroplanes under it. This was safe enough in the days of old stringbag biplanes which couldn’t go very fast. It wasn’t so safe by the time you had much faster aircraft, although during the Second World War three Spitfires flew under it; one of the pilots was an American woman named Ann Wood. By the time of jet aircraft, it was no longer daring to fly under the bridge, it was suicidal; the pilot of a de Havilland Vampire attempted the stunt in 1957 and crashed into the side of the Gorge.
8. The Leigh Abutment, the big brick thing holding up the Bridge on the Leigh Woods side wasn’t necessary. The Merchant Venturers and other civic worthies insisted Brunel include it as they feared the Bridge might fall down otherwise. Its interior is vast, like a cathedral, say those lucky people who got to look inside.
9. A lunatic named William Comyns Beaumont was walking across the Bridge in the 1920s and had a mystic revelation. Beaumont was a British Israelist, a product of the age of social Darwinism and “scientific” racism that couldn’t abide the idea that the events described in the Bible took place in the Middle East and were acted out by Jews and the ethnic forebears of Arabs. British Israelists believed that it had all taken place in Britain, actually. It was while on the Suspension Bridge that Beaumont’s geography all fell into place. Suddenly it all made perfect sense! Jesus had in fact been born in Glastonbury, he had lived most of his life in Somerset, London was Damascus, Edinburgh was Jersalem and Bristol? … Well Bristol was Sodom. So hurrah for us.
FACT: William Comyns Beaumont was a Daily Mail journalist.
10. In 1896, Zanetto (“a Japanese juggler of conspicuous ability” according to the Illustrated Police News) pulled off the best Bridge stunt ever. He stood beneath the Bridge with a specially-adapted fork in his mouth while an assistant up above dropped turnips on him. He failed to catch the first four because the wind carried them off-course, but succeeded on the fifth attempt, to the great approval of the 5,000-strong crowd. Zanetto was publicising his act at the People’s Palace music hall in Baldwin Street, but young women went among the crowd with collecting boxes and raised a tidy sum for the Children’s Hospital.
11. There are lots of rare and interesting plants in the Avon Gorge, and if you’re lucky there’ll be a little display of them in a bed on the right hand side as you approach from the Clifton end. There is a plant called the Bristol Onion. Do your visitors have an onion named for their home town? The Basingstoke Onion? The New York Onion? No, they do not.
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