The long overdue modernisation of offices, maintenance and workshop facilities alongside Clifton Suspension Bridge has provided the trustees who look after the bridge with an opportunity to create a replacement for the Visitor Centre in Bridge House in Sion Place, Clifton which was forced to close after five years when the lease on the property expired in 2003 and the owner sold the building for development.
Since May, 2006, temporary accommodation has been provided for visitors in a prefabricated building in Bridge Road at the Leigh Woods end of the bridge but its limited space has meant that the display material on show has been minimal, facilities for visiting school groups have been cramped, and there has been little room for souvenir sales.
Now plans are in hand for a £1.9 million development on the 667 sq m Bridge Yard site opposite the temporary accommodation. It will enable a brand new Heritage and Learning Centre to be built alongside new administration offices for use by the Bridge Master and his staff, as well as the new storage and workshop buildings required to support the long-term maintenance programme on the Victorian bridge.
The trustees are keen to complete the development within three years so that the official opening of the new Heritage and Learning Centre can coincide with the 150th anniversary of the official opening of Clifton Suspension Bridge on Monday, December 8, 2014.
With a floor area of around 320 sq m on two floors, the new centre will be a pavilion incorporating an exhibition space around three times the size of the one in the current temporary accommodation. On show will be information displays, images, hands-on exhibits and artefacts, some of which have been in storage since the Bridge House Visitor Centre closed eight years ago. A number of new innovative features are still under wraps.
Says visitor services manager Mike Rowland: “We plan to create a place for our visitors to learn and deepen their appreciation and participation in the future of Clifton Suspension Bridge. We want to encourage local visitors, tourists, school children and engineering scholars to discover Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the Victorian engineer who designed the bridge – as well as his legacy and the context of what is regarded as one of his greatest creations. The new centre will provide lots of opportunities for visitors of all ages and backgrounds to get involved in the creation of displays about Bristol’s icon and its designer.”
During the past four years the existing temporary facility has welcomed an average of 57,000 visitors annually – including tourists from more than 100 countries – but Mike is keen to attract more of the people who come only to look at the bridge to visit the centre as well. He also hopes that, with more to see and learn, visitors will stay longer.
“We want to ensure that they gain more from their visit,” he says. “We have conducted a study which shows that most visitors arrive having crossed from the Clifton side of the bridge, so we want to enhance their experience which starts as soon as they approach it.”
Mike’s 33 volunteer assistants include a team of guides who take 100 groups a year on free conducted tours of the bridge. Within the new centre, an assembly area for groups visiting in wet weather as well as a learning and activity space, and a shop selling books, pictures and souvenirs will be among facilities. Staff accommodation and toilets for visitors are included in the plans.
Following the closure of the original Visitor Centre in Sion Place, plans were drawn up for a replacement on the site of the public lavatories near the Clifton end of the bridge but the feasibility of constructing an adequate centre on that site meant that the development did not proceed.
The trustees say there are several reasons for proceeding with the new development now. The replacement and upgrading of administration and works facilities has been planned for several years as part of the trust’s long-term maintenance programme but, with more urgent work on the bridge itself taking priority, it is only now that work can be put in hand to replace the outdated buildings with ones which meet the requirements of modern working practices.
Every two years since 2006 North Somerset Council has renewed its planning permission for the prefabricated building housing the current Visitor Centre but this has always been, and can only be, regarded as a temporary measure. The opportunity to replace it with a permanent custom-designed building arose when options were being considered for use of the Bridge Yard site.
The chairman of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust, Dayrell McArthur, said: “Significant economies can be achieved by building the Heritage and Learning Centre at the same time as the maintenance, workshop and Trust administration facilities but the £1.5 million which for eight years the trust has ring-fenced as a contribution towards the cost of the development is insufficient to pay the total cost of £1.9 million. As the bridge is run by a charitable trust which receives no outside help towards its costs – and therefore the running and maintenance has to be paid for through income from tolls and investments – no additional toll income can be allocated to the development of Bridge Yard. Therefore we will spend only the reserves put aside for this purpose several years ago, together with the support we are seeking from other sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. As the conservation of Bristol’s historically important bridge and the provision of learning facilities are central to our operation, we hope that this project reflects the Heritage Lottery Fund’s priorities.”
Bristol architects Alec French, who have designed the scheme, will submit a planning application to North Somerset Council early next year after completion of a wide-ranging public consultation about the development plans.
An exhibition showing how the new Heritage and Learning Centre, maintenance facilities and offices might look will go on display at Burwalls in Bridge Road on Thursday, November 17 from 12 noon to 7 pm.
Subsequently the plans will be on display in the Visitor Information Centre at the Leigh Woods end of Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm.