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Bridges are an essential feature of civilisation

Posted in Architecture, Engineering, Famous landmarks, Geography, Historical articles, History, Rivers, Sea on Thursday, 31 May 2012

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This edited article about bridges originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 715 published on 27 September 1975.

Royal Albert Bridge, picture, image, illustration

The first truss is raised on the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash across the River Tamar, by Harry Green

‘Without bridges,’ it has been said, ‘civilisation would have been impossible. We would still be savages.’ Perhaps that sounds to you an exaggeration? But just think. In almost every single part of the world where people live, there are rivers that have to be crossed, True, the nomadic Bedouin roam from oasis to oasis in the riverless deserts. And the Australian Aborigine lives much as his forefathers did in the outback. Civilisation has passed him by.

Man has always needed to travel. In search of food, or a better site, or for contact and barter between one community and another. A wide, shallow river could be forded. Or boulders could be placed across the river bed in dry weather for use when the level rose. There are good examples of these in Dovedale, in Derbyshire, and near Ambleside, in Cumbria, and elsewhere.

But deep water had to be bridged. The earliest bridge was a tree-trunk, either deliberately felled by man on one bank so that it spanned the stream to the far bank, or, by chance, uprooted by wind or erosion naturally. None of these, of course, survive. But some very ancient bridges, of stone, do survive. One or more slabs of stone would be laid across from bank to bank, on a series of piled rocks. These are known as clapper-bridges, and there are good specimens near Postbridge, on Dartmoor, and even better, Tarr Steps in Somerset.

Where rivers ran in gorges, deep and swift rather than shallow and wide, a different type of bridge had to be evolved. Good examples of these are Fingle Bridge, in Devon, Twizel Bridge, in Northumberland, or the Devil’s Bridge near Bettws-y-Coed in Wales. Many were built to carry vehicles. Others, known as packhorse bridges, are just wide enough for a loaded packpony, with low parapets to avoid the risk of dislodging the bales of wool or panniers containing other merchandise. There are good examples of these at Beckfoot, in Cumbria, Egton, in North Yorkshire, Ovingham, near Hadrian’s Wall. Extra-long packhorse bridges may be seen near Bakewell, in Derbyshire, and Great Haywood, Staffordshire.

Stone bridges were regarded, especially in the Middle Ages, not just as a means of crossing a river but with respect, and even reverence. Many of them were built by monk-masons, and small chapels were incorporated in their stonework. A fine example of this is the famous Chapel Bridge at Wakefield, Yorkshire. Another, less elaborate but still well worth a close look, is the Oratory Bridge at Bradford-on Avon, Wiltshire. Above one pier of the bridge there is a beautifully shaped chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. It has served also as a lock-up!

The ‘ford’ in this town’s name, as in so many others, reveals that there used to be a ford here – actually a ‘broad’ ford. At Eynsford, in Kent, you can see to this day both the original ford and the hump-backed stone bridge. They are side by side, and both are in use after all these centuries.

The Romans had a timber bridge across the Thames at their Londinium. It was replaced by the London Bridge of the nursery-rhyme, ‘London Bridge is falling down’, in 1176, almost 800 years ago. The builder was a ‘man of God’, the priest Peter Colechurch. So well did he build that it lasted for 600 years. It had twenty spans, all of stone except one timber span that could be raised for the passage of ships. Merchants’ houses and shops faced one another across the road. Pulteney Bridge, in Bath, is a survivor of this type of bridge, on a smaller scale.

River crossings were often strategic points, so that the bridges were fortified. A splendid example of this survives in Monmouth, Gwent, built in 1272 to protect the town from ‘Welsh Wales Warriors’. You can still see the slots above the central arch through which boiling oil and molten lead were poured on those who attempted to force entrance. Another fine specimen of a fortified bridge spans the River Coquet at Warkworth, in Northumberland.

The stone bridges that succeeded the ancient clapper-bridges, built in the Middle Ages, often by masons who were also monks, all show artistry as well as competence. Many of them – like the multi-arched bridges at Wool and Sturminster Newton in Dorset, or the one between Burton-on-Trent and Derby, or the one at Huntingdon – possess a beauty of their own that reminds one of the priories and abbeys and stately homes. They were regarded as precious. The bridges in Dorset, like many others, carry plaques stating that anyone damaging them will be ‘liable to transportation for life’.

Owners of stately homes often called on their architects to build ornate bridges over natural or artificial waterways in their spacious grounds. These were of course cared for, like the homes themselves. Where the bridges carried roads across water, simply for the benefit of traffic, the authorities saw to it that they were well maintained, often by exacting tolls from the travellers. In more recent times, recognising that such bridges could not be expected to stand up to the ever increasing weight, number and speed of vehicles on the roads, they have been deliberately bypassed, the roads being re-routed over newer, functional, bridges. A good example is Atcham Bridge a few miles to the east of Shrewsbury.

It was the Industrial Revolution that first spelled real danger to bridges like these. It also, with the coming of the railways, called for the designing and building of a vast number of bridges capable of coping with the demands made on them. New materials, new and revolutionary methods, were experimented with. Derby spanned the Severn Gorge near Coalbrookdale with the first-ever Iron Bridge. Robert Stephenson built his famous Britannia Railway Bridge across the Menai Strait, 1,500 labourers and artisans working on it for five arduous years.

Not far away from the site, Thomas Telford built the beautiful suspension bridge across the same reach of water. On 30th January, 1826, the first London to Holyhead mail coach crossed between its great curving cables. Inspired by Stephenson’s achievement, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the gorge of the Avon near Bristol. Another great bridge built by this genius is the railway bridge across the Tamar, linking Devon with Cornwall at Saltash, near Plymouth.

The second longest cantilever bridge in the world was built in 1889 to carry the railway-line across the Firth of Forth. It is 1,706 feet in length. Until the Salazar Suspension Bridge across the Tagus at Lisbon was built in 1966 the Firth of Forth road bridge, completed two years earlier, was the longest suspension bridge in Europe, at 3,300 feet, with the Severn Suspension Bridge running a close second.

Such masterpieces of the engineer’s craft are a far cry from the primitive clapper-bridges, and longer bridges even now are being planned. But the thing to remember is that, because they are vital means of communication, always have been and always will be, they have won respect as well as admiration. They are a part of our long heritage, lasting evidence of man’s aspirations and ambitions. As such they deserve to be cherished and preserved, the old every bit as much as the new. In this day and age, we are all becoming increasingly conscious of this.

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