Funicular railway's past is finally being brought to life
Maggie Shapland has spent more than 1,500 hours of her life in a dark underground tunnel in the depths of the Avon Gorge.
Far from being a penance, though, this has been a labour of love – a love that, over the past few years, she and other enthusiasts have passed on to thousands of Bristolians.
The tunnel in question is the atmospheric former Clifton Rocks Railway, a long-defunct underground funicular railway built inside the Gorge cliffs to hoist Victorian passengers up to Clifton from Hotwell Road and the Harbour.
The 450-foot railway, which climbs 200 feet at a gradient of 1 in 2.2, opened back in 1893. It was powered by water and gravity, with water ballast let into the cars at the top station and out at the bottom, before being pumped back up to the top.
Although popular for a few decades, steadily declining trade led to the railway's closure in 1934. The Second World War provided a new purpose, with the tunnel used as a public air-raid shelter and storage for barrage balloons – and as a secret base for the BBC, which established recording, transmitting and communications facilities in its lower regions.
After the Beeb finally cleared out in 1960, decades of dereliction followed – until Maggie and her fellow enthusiasts got themselves together as the Clifton Rocks Railway Trust and started work on its preservation and re-opening.
Now, a new exhibition uses props, archive material and more to tell the railway's fascinating 120-year history, from those initial feats of engineering via its heyday and decline and on to the trust's recent efforts to restore and open the complex. The exhibition brings together, for the first time, material collected by the trust and historic records from the city's archives.
You'll find everything from photographs of the railway's changing interior through the decades, to a training exercise book belonging to a transmitting engineer during the war. One of the choicest items on view, meanwhile, is the first piece of rock to be cut from the cliffs when construction began back in 1891.
"This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to show some items we have been unable to display before," explains Maggie, the CRRT's restoration officer and archivist.
"We have been working since Easter 2005, and we have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of our thousands of visitors.
"We started with a derelict, virtually unknown site. Now, some 20,000 people have visited us on open days and we are doing at least one trip a week."
Maggie and the other railway volunteers now run regular open days, including free tours of the upper station on Sion Hill. They also run longer tours inside the tunnel (bookable via the Clifton Rocks Railway website) and organised visits for groups of ten people.
Maggie may have spent hundreds of her waking hours down in the tunnel (and last month, she was awarded the British Empire Medal for her endeavours) but she is still making new discoveries.
"The railway is a superb piece of engineering, as the many engineers we have brought down have all agreed. It is a skewed tunnel, built in very difficult conditions with a vast overspend in both time and money, and was the largest tunnel of its kind in the world when it was built. And, fascinatingly, it retains very visible signs of its construction.
"Our work has unearthed many artefacts and stories from both the early railway and its wartime use.
"People have also brought back things that they took as souvenirs after the site became derelict.
"This exhibition will feature many items never seen before, from all those different periods."
"There's a great deal of local interest in the railway," adds Tim Corum, deputy head of Bristol's Museums, Galleries and Archives.
"By combining our own archive material with unique objects held by the trust, we have been able to create a very special exhibition which brings to life the amazing story of this water-powered funicular railway."
Clifton Rocks Railway exhibition Bristol Record Office, from Tuesday, July 10 to Friday, September 28. See listings for details.