Meet the NI woman who looks after one of the UK’s most iconic bridges

Trish Johnson on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
Trish Johnson on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

As a self-confessed “bridge geek”, Co Down woman Trish Johnson really does have the dream job.

For the past two years the 53-year-old chartered civil engineer has been bridgemaster at one of the UK’s most iconic bridges – the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

Brunel's world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864.

Brunel's world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864.

She is responsible for the day-to-day running of the 154-year-old structure – a busy toll bridge that carries thousands of vehicles across the Avon Gorge each day – and its upkeep and preservation.

“Bridgemaster is quite a historic title,” Trish explained. “There are very few bridgemasters in the country, in fact I think I might be the only one.

“It’s basically looking after all aspects of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Looking after the maintenance of it, the operations of it, all the visitors’ services, and the staff and all that side of things.

“Anything that happens on the bridge is my responsibility and it’s my job to make sure it gets sorted out.”

Trish Johnson making safety checks on the bridge.

Trish Johnson making safety checks on the bridge.

Born in Belfast, Trish grew up in Banbridge, attended St Mary’s Primary School and then Banbridge Academy where she completed her A Levels before going on to study engineering at the University of Salford, Manchester.

After graduating, she says she “sort of fell into” bridge engineering and maintenance – an industry she has remained in for more than 30 years.

Trish, who is better known to family and friends in Northern Ireland as Patricia, has been bridgemaster at Clifton for the past two years. But previously she was in charge of maintenance at the Severn Bridge and the Second Severn Crossing (M4 Prince of Wales Bridge) and before that looked after bridges and highways across Wiltshire and Avon.

She is the first woman to take on the role of bridgemaster at Clifton, but says she isn’t tempted to change her title to bridgemistress.

An aerial view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge and the River Avon.

An aerial view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge and the River Avon.

“It is a historic title so it would be unfair to try to change it. I’m happy with bridgemaster, so I wouldn’t want to try to change the course of history!”

Trish manages a team of 24 people including bridge attendants, visitor centre staff, maintenance workers and administration staff, as well as dozens of volunteers who help out with various projects.

“I really enjoy it. It’s fantastic,” she said. “It is a real honour to be looking after such a historic asset. I’ve been in Bristol 25 or 30 years now – a long time since I left Northern Ireland – and the bridge has always been a part of my tours when family have been over, so it’s amazing that I’m actually looking after it now.

“It is a big responsibility. The bridge itself is over 150 years old. It is one of the icons of Bristol. We get half a million visitors here every year, so it is my responsibility to make sure the bridge is well maintained, safe to use and that it is there for a long time to come.

“It is a historic Grade 1 listed structure and there are not many historic Grade 1 listed structures that are still used as a transport asset. We still have four million vehicles cross the bridge every year, so it is a working asset as well as a historical and visitor attraction, so there is a lot to the job and it definitely keeps me busy.”

The married mum-of-two admits to being slightly obsessed with bridges, and once even booked a weekend trip to Copenhagen just so she could visit the Öresund Bridge which runs between Denmark and Sweden.

Her husband Rob, who works in finance, may not share her passion for bridges, but it seems he’s seen more than his fair share over the years.

“When we go on holidays he ends up getting trailed round every bridge,” Trish smiled. “He’s getting used to the bridges by now!”

Neither of Trish’s children share her love of engineering either. Her daughter Fiona, 23, works in marketing, while son Thomas, 19, is studying economics at university.

She says she tried to get them into engineering, without success. But she’s adamant that more needs to be done in the UK in general to encourage young people, particularly girls, to get into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

“I think the UK has got the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe and that’s a sad situation. We’ve probably got about 10% or less female engineers across the UK, so it is really important that we increase the number of women in engineering.

“We need to increase the number of people with engineering skills full stop, but we need to tap in to that whole area of getting girls engaged and interested in engineering,” she continued.

“Maths was my big thing. I am one of these geeks really. The problem solving side of things is what I really liked, and still do really, and engineering is perfect for that. There is always a problem you’ve got to sort out, and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

“I have done it for 30 years and I have had a whale of a time and really enjoyed it. It’s not just about getting your hands dirty and the mud and concrete and that side of things, there is so much more to it than that and that’s what we have to try to get across to the youngsters of today.”

Trish, whose father Tommy Fee is well known in the Banbridge area for having run
 fitness classes at the local college for more than four decades, has made her life in Bristol and says she has no plans at present to return home to Northern Ireland.

“I get drawn back every now and then. I go back to see family and friends. But my husband and kids are here so I don’t think I’ll be moving home just yet, but who knows what we’ll do when we retire.”

THE FACTS

• The Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864. It is a private bridge run by a trust.

• The 702 feet long, 1,500-tonne structure spans the Avon Gorge and River Avon between Clifton in Bristol and Leigh Woods in North Somerset.

• The deck of the Grade 1 listed structure sits 245 feet above the river.

• Its designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was just 23 when he was appointed project engineer.

• Brunel died in 1859 – five years before the bridge he described as “my first love” officially opened.

• Today the bridge serves as a crossing for more than four million vehicles every year.

• Vehicle drivers have to pay a

£1 toll to cross the bridge, and the money goes towards the upkeep of the historic structure.

• Trish Johnson, the first female bridgemaster, took over the role in October 2016.