The Clifton Observatory is an observatory on Clifton Down in Bristol, which offers spectacular views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the River Avon.
It was originally built in 1766 as a windmill for grinding corn and it was later converted for use grinding snuff. After a fire in 1777, it was left derelict for just over 50 years before being converted into an artist’s studio.
William West, the artist who rented the mill in 1828, installed telescopes and a camera obscura that were used by artists of the Bristol School for ‘photographic drawing’ of images of the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods. It is one of only three working camera obscuras in the United Kingdom.
What to see at the Clifton Observatory
The observatory is designated as a Grade II*-listed building and visitors are able to see the camera obscura and a small museum. There is also a cave on the site that is worth a visit.
Although the main attraction is the building itself and the brilliant views of the suspension bridge and the Avon Gorge, the camera obscura at the top of the tower is definitely worth a visit. A camera obscura is essentially Victorian-era CCTV and visitors are able to use the handle to operate the device themselves to see projections of views of the surrounding area including Leigh Downs, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge.
The observatory is also home to a small museum with exhibits about the building’s history.
The site is also home to Ghyston’s Cave, which is also known as either Giant’s Cave, Giant’s Foxhole or St Vincent’s Cave. This is a natural cave in the limestone cliff-face of St Vincent’s Rocks, which offers spectacular views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge.
Visiting the Clifton Observatory
The Clifton Observatory is located in Clifton near Clifton Village and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Many people combine a visit to Clifton Observatory with the nearby bridge, which is only a four-minute walk away. Bristol Zoo is also nearby and should take most people around 15 minutes to walk.
It is 3.5km (2¼ miles) west of Bristol’s city centre and you can walk here from the city centre in around 45 minutes, an hour if you take the scenic walk that follows the River Avon.
You can also get here by bus. Many people take bus route 8, which runs regularly and has several convenient departure points in the city centre. If you take this bus you should get off outside Christ Church and walk the remaining five minutes to the observatory.
Admission to both the camera obscura and the cave costs £4, although it is possible to just do one or the other for £2.50 which suits some people as the staircase to the cave is not suitable for people who suffer from claustrophobia and the camera obscura doesn’t work when it is raining.
The 360 at the Observatory cafe on the roof of the observatory offers some of the best views in Bristol. However, it is sometimes closed to the public for private functions such as weddings. There are also several lovely places to eat and drink in Clifton Village but these don’t offer the spectacular views that you get from the 360 Cafe.
Giant’s Cave is reached via a staircase inside a tunnel that is accessible from the observatory. The 130-step staircase is enclosed inside a 61m- (200 ft)-long tunnel that allows you to enter through the rear of the cave, which is 76m (250 ft) above the Avon River and 27m (90 ft) below the clifftop. Children younger than four are not able to visit the cave.
Because of its location and the historic nature of the building, both Clifton Observatory and Giant’s Cave are not accessible by wheelchair, nor by other mobility aids.
It is best to visit on a clear and dry day as the camera obscura doesn’t work as well when it is overcast or raining.