Bristol’s Abandoned Clifton Rocks Funicular Railway

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway-bristol (Image: Linda Bailey, cc-sa-4.0)

Like history’s more eccentric – and often short-lived – pneumatic railways, the Clifton Rocks Funicular Railway in Bristol, UK, without doubt ranks among the most unusual underground railways ever constructed. Built to link the high level Clifton suburb with the paddle steamers of Hotwells and the now-defunct Bristol Port Railway and Pier, this Victorian engineering marvel was overseen by George Croydon Marks during the late 19th century. But unfortunately, it never quite took off.

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway-bristol-2 (Image: Matt Buck, cc-sa-4.0)

The water-powered system, which was operated by gravity, featured two parallel narrow gauge railway tracks of 450 ft in length and a gradient of 1 in 2.2. Carved through solid rock to emerge at a station near Clifton’s famous suspension bridge, the underground funicular transported an impressive 6,200 passengers on its opening day, March 11, 1893.

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway (Image: Paul Townsend, cc-nd-4.0)

But despite its great promise, the subterranean funicular failed to live up to the hype. Deemed a commercial failure almost immediately, the Clifton Rocks Funicular Railway was sold to Bristol Tramways in 1912, which maintained a terminus near the lower station in the Avon Gorge.

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway-3 (Image: Matt Buck, cc-sa-4.0)

Its fortunes, however, were never to be turned. Twenty-two years later on October 1, 1934 the unusual railway was finally put out of its misery. But the story didn’t end there. Like other abandoned underground railways, Clifton Rocks Funicular found a new purpose during World War Two, serving as an air-raid shelter to protect local civilians from German bombs.

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway-2 (Image: Matt Buck, cc-sa-4.0)

The BBC also used the abandoned tunnel as a relay station and built an emergency studio in the space, though the latter was never pressed into use.

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway-bristol-3 (Image: Dauvit Alexander, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

The historic structure remains virtually intact today, set into the cliff side and seemingly forgotten beyond its attractive stone-built facade. Its name remains clearly visible in faded lettering between long-sealed arched windows. The classical entrance-way, meanwhile, is protected by a heavy steel gate.

clifton-rocks-funicular-railway-bristol-4 (Image: Sarah Charlesworth, cc-sa-4.0)

But despite its troubled history followed by many years of abandonment, this important part of Bristol‘s railway heritage may soon be resurrected. A group of volunteers came together in 2008 with a vision of restoring the Clifton Rocks Funicular Railway for future generations, at an estimated cost of around £15 million.

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