The Clifton Rocks Railway was an underground funicular railway in Bristol, linking Clifton at the top to Hotwells and Bristol Harbour at the bottom of the Avon Gorge via a tunnel cut through the limestone cliffs. The upper station is close to Brunel's famous Clifton Suspension Bridge and is located adjacent to the former Grand Spa Hotel (now the Avon Gorge Hotel). The lower station was opposite the paddle steamer landing ferries in Hotwells, Hotwells railway station of the Bristol Port Railway and Pier, a terminus of Bristol Tramways and the Rownham ferry, enabling connections across the river Avon.
The Clifton Rocks Railway, soon to feature in a new exhibition, has a fascinating history. In the early days of Bristol’s electric trams, George White, the aeroplane and tram pioneer, wanted to carry his network into Clifton. His plans, however, ran into strong opposition from residents determined to maintain the area’s exclusivity. But many people loved the Downs - a natural playground where they could unwind and relax - and wanted transport to take them there.
White, whose life’s mission was getting people where they wanted to go, started looking at solutions to the problem. He noticed that a recently opened funicular railway in North Devon, linking Lynton with Lynmouth, had proved very popular. It had been financed by the wealthy publisher Sir George Newnes who lived locally. Could Bristol, thought White, have something similar? Newnes was very supportive, even buying shares in the new venture. But the Merchant Venturers, who owned the Clifton side of the gorge, insisted that the railway be built entirely underground.
Tunnelling through the hard, faulted limestone from both ends at once was no easy job and so progress was slow. Broken drills and rock falls were just two of the difficulties they encountered. The funicular finally opened two years later, but at a cost of £30,000 - three times the original estimate. Despite the opening being the only time that turned in a profit, the railway proved a great success. Every one of the 6,220 people who travelled on that day got a gilded metal medallion as a memento. In the first six weeks the railway carried more than 100,000 people and on Bank Holidays the company estimated that they carried 1,000 people an hour. It certainly rivalled Brunel’s suspension bridge as a tourist attraction.
The four track railway used no steam engines - just a simple system of water and gravity. When the cars – one at the top and one at the bottom – were loaded, they balanced one another. Water was pumped into the top car’s tank so it became heavier than the lower one. Then, as the brakes were released, the heavier car would descend, pulling the bottom car to the top. An electric telegraph linked the two so that each brakeman knew how many passengers they had and could adjust the amount of water in the tanks accordingly. When the upper car reached the bottom, the water was pumped back to a reservoir at the top. The four oil-lit cars took 18 passengers at a time, plus a brakeman who rode on a small platform. For safety’s sake each pair of cars had three sets of duplicate brakes. Although it was pitch black in the brick lined tunnel the cars were painted light blue and white with gold lining.
The journey, which took just 40 seconds each way, cost one penny to go up and one half-penny to come down. People liked the novelty but few used it regularly and in 1908 the company went broke. But George White wasn’t the sort of person to watch a venture like this falter. In 1912 he bought the funicular for the knockdown price of £1,500, restored it, and then ran it as part of his tramway operation. However, in the 1920’s the Hotwells road was widened, making access difficult, and the Port and Pier railway line, a useful connection to Avonmouth, was taken up. Then the busy Portway opened and, as trams gave way to buses, so business tailed off leading to eventual closure in 1934.
But this wasn’t quite the end of the story... At the start of World War II the top part of the tunnel was used as a bomb-proof shelter. Then, in 1941, the BBC took out the carriages and converted the lower section into an emergency headquarters – to be used if London’s Broadcasting House should be destroyed. They put in a recording room, transmitter room, control room and studio, which could hold a dozen actors and was equipped for music and drama.
A special ventilation shaft was even installed so that the occupants could survive gas attacks. BOAC (the British Overseas Airways Corporation - later British Airways) used the top part of the tunnel for storage. After the end of the war, and indeed until 1960, the transmitter was used as a booster station. When the BBC left the top station most of the tunnel was bought by the owner of the Grand Spa Hotel (now the Avon Gorge Hotel) and closed up. And there the story might have ended had it not been for some keen volunteers who wanted to try and restore this half forgotten Clifton secret. The Clifton Rocks Railway Trust is currently working hard alongside Bristol City Council and a number of local companies to restore elements of the Railway. Watch this space!
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Pictures and text courtesy of: http://www.cliftonrocksrailway.org.uk/