Travelling along the Hotwells Road towards the city you may have noticed the lower exit remains of the Clifton Rocks Railway which ran until 1934. An eager enthusiast for all things connected with the railway including, of course, its current restoration, Mr Peter Davey came recently to talk to the Thornbury Society and held his audience entranced as he told us of the 'ups and downs' of its history.
His talk was lively, amusing and informative. Sir George White, who held control of Bristol's public tram, and bus services (and later turned his interests into what became the Bristol Airplane works) was keen to expand his empire and connect the people of Bristol with the delights of Clifton. However, Clifton residents were more difficult to persuade about the need for such a service and rejected his initial plan for an over ground route. Nonetheless, the owners of the Spa Hotel, which sits adjacent to the upper station, could see the advantages of a public transport facility which might increase the numbers of people able to reach and experience its delights, and so submitted a successful proposal for a railway in a tunnel. Of course construction costs exceeded expectations as the geology proved much more difficult but the digging teams soldiered on with what was the widest tunnel construction in the world at the time. On its opening day in March 1893, the fare was a ha'penny down and a penny to ride up. Unfortunately aside from this day when each passenger received a commemorative medallion and the railway saw a profit, the railway went almost immediately into a financial decline and was eventually acquired by Sir George White in 1912 for the meager sum of £1500, remaining in his ownership until its closure in 1934.
Essentially the tunnel contains two Linton and Lynmouth type railways side by side. The cars remained level at all times and were fitted onto horizontal platforms which contained large water tanks. Water would be pumped into the uppermost car until its weight exceeded that of the car and passengers at the lower station. The increased weight would make the upper car descend and in doing so would pull up the lower car as the two were connected by pulleys.
During the war period, the lower end of the tunnels were fitted out by the BBC as studios and broadcasting facilities which could be used to keep the radio broadcasts on the air in case of an air raid on its primary location in Whiteladies Road. The British Overseas Airway Company also used part of the tunnels as an office suite and storage facility. The middle sections were converted as large air raid shelters and staircases were fitted on either side so that access became easier and these remain clearly visible to this present day.
Once the war was over, the tunnels became a dumping ground for waste from the now named Avon Gorge Hotel and much of what was placed there has been patiently removed during the recent restoration effort. Amongst the debris has been found some of the original turnstiles, railings, and light fittings which the restoration team has already, or intends to put back.
Mr Davey stressed to us the willingness of the restorers to welcome any visitors to the site at times when they find the gates at the top station open. This is often at weekends but for those who prefer to visit on open days another has been arranged for May 3rd 2006.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.