Bristol's Avon Gorge,

Malcolm Chant

Joined September 2008

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The gorge area was inhabited at least as early as the Iron Age, probably by the Dobunni tribe. In Leigh Woods above Nightingale Valley, a steep dry valley beside the suspension bridge, is Stokeleigh Camp, one of three Iron Age hill forts in the area.19 Stokeleigh was occupied from 3BCE to 1CE, and was also used in the Middle Ages.19 The camp was protected on two sides by the cliff faces of the gorge and Nightingale Valley, and was also protected by earthworks, and is now a scheduled ancient monument.20 A second hill fort was situated across Nightingale Valley, but has since been built on, and bridge road cuts through it. The third hill fort was situated on the opposite side of the gorge, in what is now observatory green. Archaeology, plus the configuration of the three forts, suggest they played a role in defending the gorge.5

Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge, looking towards the city of Bristol. The people are looking out of the Giants Cave view point on the gorge face.During the Middle Ages and industrial revolution the area which now forms The Downs was used as common grazing land. It was mined for lead, calamine, iron and limestone, and became home to a windmill which produced snuff from the tobacco which had become one of the city’s principal imports.21 In 1777 the windmill bunt out in a storm, and the building was converted into the observatory, which houses a camera obscura.22 In the 18th and 19th centuries Bristol’s economy boomed and Clifton became a desirable place to live. Mansion houses were built over looking the gorge, but after grazing was stopped, trees grew and obscured the view from these mansions. In the Victorian era, with houses creeping further onto the Downs, an Act of Parliament was passed to protect them as a park for the people of Bristol. In 1754 a bridge to span the gorge was proposed, but it was nearly 80 years before work began on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, and a further 30 years before it was completed.2324 Today the bridge is perhaps the best known landmark in Bristol.

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