Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of the great engineer Marc Brunel. At a very early age he helped his father construct the Thames Tunnel. This was because Marc couldn’t afford a baby-sitter. If Brunel had listened to the advice of his school’s careers officer he would have taken a course in marriage guidance, because he was good at building bridges.
It was while convalescing in Bristol after an illness in 1829 that young Isambard read of a competition to design a bridge to cross the Avon Gorge. He immediately submitted a design based on an Egyptian theme along with the requested amount of soup labels and a tie-breaker. Brunel’s acquaintances thought he was wasting his time as it was well known that the competition organisers favoured the brilliant and established engineer Thomas Telford. But Brunel astutely argued that Thomas Telford, when led horizontally, only measured five foot seven inches and any prospective bridge spanning the Avon Gorge needed to be considerably longer than that.
The Mayor of Bristol expressed reservations about Brunel’s Egyptian theme. He worried that it might attract mosquitoes, or even Mark Antony. It was also feared that it might encourage more citizens to express themselves through Egyptian architecture, and those in charge of the city’s cemeteries already encountered enough headaches allocating space without having to process applications to build pyramids there too.
A stroke of good fortune helped sway the judges in Brunel’s favour. Putting right the damage caused by the Bristol Riots of 1831 meant that funding for the project was slashed. What the judges liked about Brunel’s design was that the two towers either side of the Gorge would not be linked, thus saving money on building materials. Brunel had also considered these other benefits to not linking the two towers:
- Complaints from road users to the City Council would fall (and in some cases quite literally).
- It would boost the Clifton Christian Memorabilia Shop’s profits on Whiteladies Road; as it would be the only way people in the area would be able to get a cross.
- It would be easier for everyone else in Bristol to obtain fairy lights.
- Slightly less ink would be needed on maps of Bristol.
The two unconnected towers were swiftly constructed and remained unlinked for the next thirty years. But in 1864, a little while after Brunel’s death, another plan was found which he would’ve submitted had he been able to afford more soup to acquire the required amount of labels to enter it (he did not know that there was a BOGOF offer on at the time at Sainsbury’s). It was decided as a mark of respect to use this plan to build a conventional bridge. The two towers were then duly linked. To this day, many Bristolians give thanks to Brunel for building the Clifton Suspension Bridge…..especially when they are half-way across it!