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Clifton Observatory, Bristol

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by Tom Fieldhouse (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer, living in Bath with my wife and son. I love my city, and love to live here. I write about Bath a lot, and sometimes about travels in Ireland and France.
Published October 10th 2020
Sky, Soaring Cliffs and Slides
Observe the view- above and below!

With the glorious Bristol suspension bridge as a backdrop, the observatory is worth the view alone. You can find it above the city, perched on the edge of Bristol's Clifton Downs. The observatory is a Science museum, dedicated to the history of this unusual building. Originally a windmill and flour mill, it became a storehouse for tobacco, a World War Two air-raid shelter, and is currently an events venue.

Window view
One of the views from inside the museum building

The 300 feet deep Avon gorge is spanned by the bridge and makes for an imposing rocky landscape. This massive open and tree-lined downs are now home to runners, walkers and dog-walkers. It is a stone's throw from the chic and student-dwelling Clifton village, which is a beautiful example of Georgian town planning, with its focus on socialising and pleasure-seeking.

The Observatory at Clifton has had many owners and many functions in the past. Its current incarnation is as a museum to astronomy, with a remarkable 17th Century 'Camera Obscura' in its tower. Surrounding the buildings (originally a windmill and grain storage barn) there are park benches and beautifully kept grounds aplenty. One wing of the Observatory is also a wedding venue now, which gives this place a celebratory feel, even on a cloudy day.

Clifton Suspension Bridge
A breathtaking view

Whilst queuing up for the observatory, most eyes will be drawn to the world-famous Suspension bridge, built by the Victorian genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Both a road and pedestrian bridge, it is a miracle of engineering and connects Clifton village to its surrounding areas. Why not treat yourselves to a take away coffee and a yummy cake from the cafe, and drink in the view?

Converted windmill

The museum tower is not a large venue, so you may have to queue up for a little while, even if you book your tickets online beforehand. Household bubbles are being let in one at a time, so progress is a little slow, but the wait is well worth it!

One of the only three Camera Obscuras in England!

Camera Obscura
The camera viewing plate

After enjoying two floors of displays and exhibitions about the observatory building, you come to the top of the tower. In a darkened room, a beautiful image of the surrounding landscape greets you. Projected by a mirror on to a whitewashed sphere, you can enjoy a bird's eye view of Clifton Gorge and the suspension bridge. A conveniently placed wooden handle even lets you change the viewpoint, a little like operating a periscope. Being one of only three camera obscuras in the country, this is very much worth experiencing.

Camera Obscura
Clifton Gorge, seen in miniature

Clifton's Giant's Cave

Deep beneath the observatory, heading down

The vision of an eccentric Victorian owner, the Giant's cave is a downward spiralling tunnel, that runs from the bottom of the observatory to a magnificent viewing gallery, cut out of the cliff face of the gorge. The steps down to the tunnel are extremely steep and tricky to negotiate, so this part of the experience is not accessible to wheelchair users, or those with limited mobility. If you do venture down there though, the view of the suspension bridge (now above you) is remarkable. With an iron grille beneath your feet, you can also peer down into the gorge, and be appalled at how high up you are!

Railings and steep steps

Do bear in mind that you have to walk back up to ground level, once you visit the viewing gallery. The journey back is an experience in itself, as the air temperature is easily 10 degrees lower below ground. I felt very relieved to be back in the fresh air, above ground, when I came back out again.

Cave with a view
The viewing platform, deep within the gorge wall

The 'Slidey Rock'.
S natural slide, polished by the bottoms of generations of Bristolians

No trip to the observatory is complete without a visit to the 'Slidey Rock'. Whether you just watch the lunatics who slide down this polished rockface or risk a bruised Coccyx, this Bristol institution is an absolute must. Overlooking the gorge to the right, this steep rocky hill has been polished to a glassy shine by centuries of visitors. Nobody knows just how old the slidey rock is, but people are drawn to this natural slide with a sort of magnetism. Having slammed by bones down the chute, my advice is to stop yourself a good 8 feet from the bottom of the slide, and then watch as others connon down to the gravelly bottom!

Rock river
Smooth as water, like a stream down the hillside

Clifton has all manner of lovely shops and eateries to visit, and so I would visit this place at the end of a day exploring. There is even a world-famous Catholic Cathedral in Clifton, which is built in the Brutalist style. It has been compared to everything from a circus big top to a spaceship!

Clifton Cathedral
The rising spire of the Cathedral

The observatory on an autumnal day
Beautiful stonework, beneath big skies
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Why? A museum, a cave, views and a camera obscura
When: All year round
Phone: 44 117 974 1242
Where: Clifton Downs, in Bristol
Cost: Very reasonable- cave and obscura are under 10.00, and the park is free entry.
Your Comment
A fascinating location Tom, full of history.
by nfoll (score: 1|68) 668 days ago
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