Bridging the gap, the gorge and the centuries
GRANDIOSE plans by our Prime Minister to build a bridge to Ireland are nothing new. Politicians and ambitious leaders are always keen on leaving a legacy of what are now described as “major infrastructure” projects, which is another way of saying a bottomless pit into which taxpayers’ money will cascade. It probably won’t happen. But it does serve to remind us that bridges often have a significance beyond the practicalities of transporting people, animals and goods from one side of a stretch of water to the other. People have been building bridges for millennia. Two personal favourites are the great Shahrestan bridge in Isfahan (pictured left), which dates back more than 1500 years, and Postbridge on Dartmoor – the West Country has some of the UK’s most interesting, important and beautiful bridges.
Tarr Steps on Exmoor may be one of the oldest bridges in the world. If you google “oldest bridge” you will get the Meles bridge in Turkey, built by the Romans in 850BC. The Romans were great engineers and many of the bridges they built during their ten centuries of domination of Europe and the Near East are still standing. But Tarr Steps, which is a 17-span clapper bridge and not a single span (as is the Meles bridge) may date from the late Bronze Age (1000BC); other estimates suggest as late as the 14th century. Tarr Steps is constructed entirely from large stone slabs and boulders and is the longest of its kind in Britain. It has been restored several times in recent years, following flood damage.
White Mill Bridge between Wimborne and Sturminster Marshall is the oldest bridge on the Stour, and is a scheduled ancient monument, dating from 1175. Constructed with striking use of red and white sandstone, this beautiful Norman bridge is 210ft long and, at 12ft wide, has never been widened. The largest of its eight, arched spans is 19ft 6in. Pointed breakwaters on both sides of each pier are extended upwards along the length of the bridge to provide refuges on either side of the roadway. There is a record that in 1341, three shillings were bequeathed for repair of the bridge. Rather more substantial renovations were carried out in 1964.
The Packhorse bridge at Bruton (also known as Bow Bridge) is a medieval single span bridge. It connects Silver Street over the river Brue to the High Street, via one of the town’s many bartons (alleyways). It is a Grade 1 listed building, retaining much of its original stonework, which is well-preserved under later, renewed masonry. It is nationally important as one of 16 surviving, largely unaltered, medieval single span bridges. The Bruton bridge – which gives its name to Bruton’s Packhorse Fair – has remained in continuous use in its present form since the medieval period and may have been constructed on the site of an earlier crossing.
Postbridge, on an ancient Dartmoor route between Princetown and Moretonhampstead, is both a hamlet next to the East Dart river, and the clapper bridge over the river. It is believed to have been built in the 13th century to enable pack horses to cross the river, carrying tin to the stannary town of Tavistock. (Stannary towns, unique to Devon and Cornwall, were so designated as the location of a stannary, established under stannary law to manage the collection of tin coinage, the duty payable on the tin that was smelted from the ore mined in the region).
The Palladian bridge in the grounds of Wilton House could stake a claim as the most elegant in this country. This magnificent structure, was built in 1736-1737, on a design inspired by the Italian architect Palladio’s rejected design for the Rialto Bridge in Venice. The construction was adapted and supervised by Henry 9th Earl of Pembroke. The bridge, over the river Nadder, has been copied several times, including at Stowe gardens, Prior Park, Bath, and Tsarskoye Selo, by the Empress Catherine. the Great
Pulteney Bridge, across the Avon in Bath, was completed by 1774, connecting the city with land which the Pulteney family wished to develop. Designed by Robert Adam in a Palladian style, the Grade 1 listed structure is unusual in having shops built across its full span on both sides. (This was common practice historically across Europe, but very few bridges with shops survive – the Rialto in Venice is the best-known). There have been plans to pedestrianise the bridge, but it is still used by buses and taxis.. In the film of the musical Les Miserables, the haunted Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) throws himself into the weir on the Avon by Pulteney Bridge, standing in for the Seine in Paris.
Clifton Suspension Bridge, crossing the Avon Gorge from Clifton, in Bristol, to Leigh Woods, is indisputably one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements, described by its creator, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as “my first child, my darling.” It is more than 300ft (100m) above the river. One of the oldest iron suspension bridges in the world, it marks a turning point in the history of engineering and has also come to symbolise Bristol as a city of original thinkers and independent spirit. Brunel was just 24, a young and innovative engineer, when he was appointed for the project which came about through a competition. The bridge, which took 33 years to complete, marked the beginning of a great engineering career – Brunel died before it was finished. The idea of building a bridge across the Avon Gorge originated in 1753. Original plans were for a stone bridge and later iterations were for a wrought iron structure. In 1831, an attempt to build Brunel’s design was halted by the Bristol riots, and the revised version of his designs was built after his death and completed in 1864. The bridge is owned and managed by a charitable trust, which uses the income from tolls to pay for maintenance. It is a genuinely iconic image, seen in many films, television programmes and advertisements. Tragically, it has been the scene of many suicides, but it has also been a venue for cultural events such as the last Concorde flight in 2003 and a handover of the Olympic Torch relay in 2012.
The Telescopic Bridge (locally known as the Black Bridge) in Bridgwater was built in 1871 to carry a railway over the River Parrett. It was designed by Sir Francis Fox, the engineer for the Bristol and Exeter Railway, and carried a railway siding over the river to the coal yard and docks in the Port of Bridgwater. At that time (as through most of Bridgwater’s history), the Parrett was navigable for large trading vessels, so the new bridge had to be movable, to allow boats to proceed upriver to Town Bridge. Part of the railway siding followed the route previously used by a horse-drawn tram which had later been converted to a mixed gauge rail system. An 80-foot (24m) section of track could be moved sideways by a traverser, to enable the main 127-foot (39m) girders to be retracted. The bridge was temporarily immobilised during World War II and last opened in 1953. The traverser section was demolished in 1974, but the public outcry resulted in the bridge being listed as a scheduled ancient monument, and the rest of the bridge was kept. It was used as a road crossing, until the construction of the Chandos road bridge alongside it, and is now only used by pedestrians.
Twin Sails Bridge at West Quay Road, Poole, crossing from Poole to Hamworthy, can best be described as “troubled” – it is undoubtedly elegant, but is prone to technical difficulties, and is currently closed. Opened in 2012, the bridge (also known as the Second Harbour Crossing) is a double leaved bascule bridge and was intended to allow development of four major sites, two in the town centre and two in Hamworthy, including the old power station, which was closed in 1988. The technical problems are described as “design issues.” The Wikipedia entry for the bridge comments drily: “Due to the constant issues with the bridge it has become a white elephant in the Borough of Poole and a source of humour among the local population.”