Did you know that a civil engineer is responsible for managing the Clifton Suspension Bridge including the Grade 1 listed bridge, the offices and visitor centre? Her official title is Bridge Master – a very unusual title which goes back in history – and we caught up with Trish Johnson CEng FICE, to find out more about this unique post, her own career path from maths and physics in school and a degree in Civil Engineering, what inspired her and what she would recommend to young people thinking of this sector. Here’s what she told us …
What is the role of the Bridge Master?
The Bridge Master is responsible for the running and maintenance of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is over 150 years old and part of our transport network in Bristol and North Somerset so it is vital that it is well maintained. The bridge is also an iconic tourist attraction in the South West and a Grade 1 Listed Suspension Bridge so we need to ensure that this important structure continues for years to come. As it is a private bridge owned and operated by Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust, we charge a toll for vehicles to cross and use this for the upkeep of the bridge.
In my role as Bridge Master, I have a team of over twenty staff that help me including those based at the Toll Houses to manage the tolls, assist the public and review the CCTV cameras. Our Mission Statement is to provide the best possible visitor focused and accessible Heritage Centre and so we also have staff to manage the visitor centre* – containing exhibitions about the design and construction of the bridge – as well as our maintenance and office staff who deal with the day to day aspects of maintaining and running a business.
What is a typical day like for you?
There is no such thing as a typical day, but maintenance is the priority as we need to ensure that the bridge is protected against corrosion, overloading and damage. I am therefore responsible for ensuring that we have consultants and contractors in place to carry our regular inspections on the condition of the bridge, paint the bridge to protect it from corrosion, and carry out regular maintenance and repairs to ensure it is safe for our many visitors and commuters.
We also have a number of major projects that are progressing, such as the construction of new toll houses, which involve seeking planning permission with the help of our architects and then finalising the design to ultimately construct the toll houses.
However, it is not all about the maintenance – the bridge is iconic so it is often used as a backdrop for television programmes, used in documentaries or to promote charities. So I also deal a lot with the media to ensure that what they want to do is safe and acceptable. Our visitor centre also deals with lots of tourists and school groups and organises tours, events and visits to our famous vaults.
Then, there is the day to day running of the business including ensuring that our staff are trained, business strategies are in place, recruitment and appraisals carried out, as well as the financial aspects – to name but a few! I also have a board of Trustees that I report to on a quarterly basis.
Communication is a key part of the job – through managing meetings, presenting at events and dealing with our local forums and interested groups. I am asked to talk about the history of the bridge at various conferences and also need to deal with the media on many occasions.
What career path did you take to get here?
At school, I studied physics and maths to A level and then took a degree in Civil Engineering which appealed to me as it had a variety of facets and so I did not have to specialise too soon. The course allowed me to spend a year in industry which I spent on the Severn Bridge and that gave me my first introduction to bridges.
After finishing university, I spent a number of years working for a consultant and worked on a variety of projects from designing an aqueduct, working out traffic flows in preparation for a large road scheme to designing road junctions and small bridges.
The company provided a training scheme which allowed me to progress quickly and become a Chartered Civil Engineer. This then helped me progress along the management route and I became director of one of their major highway and transportation offices.
I was always keen on innovation and promoting engineering, so I then moved to work for a company that promoted innovation within Construction and this gave me an opportunity to work independently and to engage with many construction organisations.
With this experience I also wanted to promote engineering and was Regional Director for the Institution of Civil Engineers, which promotes qualification of engineers, promotion of the industry and training for engineers. But bridges still pulled me back and for a number of years I went back to the Severn Crossings as Head of Maintenance before taking up the unique post as Bridge Master at the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
I would say my career path has been quite varied and has covered many aspects of engineering – in my later career it has also focussed on management and promotion more than the detailed design and construction element, but that just goes to show there is something in engineering for everyone!
What inspired you to take this career path?
At school, I always liked maths and physics and definitely didn’t see myself stuck in an office every day. I was lucky enough to have visited a number of construction sites before I decided to do my degree, so it gave me a bit of an understanding of what to expect. The variety in Civil Engineering then really appealed to me – I have built concrete bunkers, inspected bridges in the middle of the night and crawled through sewers, as well as worked behind a desk!
What would you recommend to young people thinking of this sector?
Firstly, I would recommend you try and visit some engineering projects before you go down this route or better still get some holiday work. This will give you a good idea of what Civil Engineering is all about. The Institution of Civil Engineers website https://www.ice.org.uk/what-is-civil-engineering also provides some great information on what to study and details the various routes to becoming a civil engineer. There are various disciplines and I would recommend you try the different areas before specialising too early! Sometimes you go down a path you never expected and love it! Whatever you do I wish you every success and would certainly recommend this as an interesting and varied job.
* And finally
Volunteers are crucial to keep the visitor centre open 7 days a week, and we would love to expand our team. If you enjoy meeting new people, learning new skills and promoting Bristol’s history than this may interest really you.
We have 3 main positions available: Front of House Assistant – delivering a friendly welcome to all visitors and provide an efficient service in the gift shop. Tour Guide – delivering guided walking tours about the Clifton Suspension Bridge to the general public and to booked groups, such as schools. Education Assistant – helping to deliver inspirational education workshops to both primary and secondary schools. If you would like to chat about our roles available, please contact Kat Tudor on 0117 974 4664 or [email protected].
Thank you Trish. You can find out more about the bridge at https://www.cliftonbridge.org.uk/
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