Back in September (the weekend just before I fell over and broke my ankle) we went and visited one of the historic locations taking part in the Heritage Open Days weekend across the UK and the Open Doors Event in Bristol.
Years ago we went to a talk all about Clifton Rocks Railway hosted by the traction engine club we were members of at the time; it was somewhere both of us had never actually heard of and the history of it was fascinating. We always meant to visit but needless to say, never got round to it so we stuck it on the calendar and made an effort to visit this year.
You'd think an idea like that would be quite the money-spinner; saving the people of Bristol a huge journey down from the top of the gorge. Railways like that seemed to work in other places - Aberystwyth and Lynton & Lynmouth for example (in fact Clifton was funded by the same guy, George Newnes who owned the latter one) but Clifton struggled to bring in the shillings and ended up closing in 1934, just over 40 years in operation.
From 1934 onwards it was shut up with the four tram cars being lowered to the bottom of the tracks and just left to decay. That probably would've been the end of the story if it hadn't been for the outbreak of the Second World War which saw the tunnels brought back into life, albeit for quite a different purpose.
Which is where the railway's story gets quite interesting...
Firstly, in 1940 British Overseas Airways constructed an office suite in the top part of the tunnel and used it for storage. Then, after some negotiations with Bristol City Council and other organisations, in 1941 the BBC took over the bottom part of the tunnel as an emergency radio station base so good ol' Auntie could continue broadcasting if Broadcasting House in London was bombed. The middle part of the tunnel was used as an air raid shelter for local residents.
Remember that all of these people and office structures were erected and camped out on a steep incline of about 45%! So stairs had to be installed and ledges constructed so that workers could do their business and residents could shelter from the bombing raids.
Something else which I found quite incredible about the whole place is that the top station is right next door to the Avon Gorge Hotel and the hotel has been involved with the history of the railway since it was first talked about in the early 1890s. The hotel used to have Turkish baths and a magnificent ballroom - and in fact, the hotel does still have them, just they're boarded up and not used. Apparently there's not enough commercial sense in reopening those two bits of the hotel which I find amazing; okay so it might not make financial sense but how could anyone leave something like this derelict?
The current team of volunteers are aiming to preserve and restore Clifton Rocks Railway and it's wartime history and open it as a sustainable visitor attraction. At the moment they open several times a year for short tours around the top station and a small museum showcasing bits and pieces from the tunnel's time during the Second World War. These are free but donations are welcomed. You can also book onto an extended tour for £5 which will take you down the tunnel into the air raid shelters, BBC rooms and the bottom station. We only did the short tour but we'd like to do the longer one next year sometime.
To this day it still remains the only underground cliff railway in the world - definitely a place with a fascinating history!