During the 1970s, deciding to go on a publicity offensive to get more work I looked for inspiration in all the work I had done so far - and made a surprising discovery. I had amassed a significant collection of Bridges, without even realising I liked them! True, I had always looked forward to crossing the Boyne Viaduct at Drogheda on my way to and from school at the beginning and end of term; in my early days of working around Britain I had routinely included the bridges on my list of things to photograph wherever I happened to be going.
I started to photograph bridges on purpose after that, with the vague intention of being the Man with the Bridge Collection. Of course, having every UK bridge on file is just not feasible. There are nearly 30,000 in Network Rail’s care, for example, and goodness knows how many road bridges, not to mention aqueducts, canal bridges, footbridges, transporter bridges, chapel bridges, clapper bridges, packhorse bridges, turnaround bridges, ornamental bridges, folly bridges, the Bridge House in Ambleside and the Mathematical Bridge in Cambridge. Sal became involved, and before long we had an extensive bridge library and a card index of many hundreds of them (which we seem to have thrown away or lost in this digital age!).
Though Sal’s list of bridges was characteristically thorough we seldom went on special expeditions to photograph them. We picked them up on our way to or from jobs or calendar customs, or on holiday. I suppose we must have covered several hundred, though I haven’t scanned all of them. There are over 900 pictures in this collection covering, at a very rough count, about 300 bridges. Obviously there are several pictures of major examples, only a token one of many. Plenty of well-known bridges are missing because we never passed by – some are of no particular interest but simply took our fancy. If you are really interested ‘bridge’ brings up 3644 hits on Collections website, which must add up to a pretty comprehensive coverage of British Isles bridges. However there are some pictures here that have nothing to do with bridges at all except that they happen to have ‘bridge’ as part of the keyword that put them there, and you get to meet our friend Bridget from the Aran Islands, and the the Ewenny Cats from near Bridgend.
All bridges are interesting but if I had to make my personal choices it would be for the bridges (and other works) of the great 18th and 19th century engineers like Thomas Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, Abraham Darby, John Smeaton, John Rennie, James Brindley and the mighty Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Most of their bridges and canals, aqueducts, railways, harbours and so on are still in full use. Only Rennie has been unlucky, on the Thames in central London anyway. From 1815 for well over a century London, Southwark and Waterloo Bridges were all his, and very handsome they were, but between 1920 and 1973 all three had to be replaced to cope with increasingly heavy traffic both on the carriageway and on the river.
Another thing I like are the places with several bridges all together like samples in a catalogue. Newcastle/Gateshead must take the prize with seven remarkable specimens across the River Tyne within about a mile. Up the road in Berwick upon Tweed they have three magnificent examples; the ‘Old Bridge’, a 15-arch long bridge built in 1624, Robert Stephenson’s Royal Border Bridge, a 28-arch, 720-yard, railway viaduct built in 1850 for what is now the East Coast main line, still very much in use, and in between the impressive concrete Royal Tweed Bridge built in 1925 to relieve the Old Bridge. And while you are in Berwick don’t miss Union Bridge, five miles upstream, built in 1825, the oldest suspension bridge in the world still in full-time (though weight restricted) use. Equally interesting are three bridges in Wycoller, near Colne in Lancashire, with three tiny bridges all many hundreds of years old, a clam bridge, a clapper bridge and the packhorse Weavers Bridge, which has a picturesquely wonky arch and the top worn down by centuries of workers passing to and fro wearing their clogs.
Sal inclines towards the medieval bridges, especially the long, or longish, bridges such as at Berwick upon Tweed or Bideford, that have stood for half a millennium, seen kings and queens come and go, wars rage, and traffic grow from carts to vast 44 tonne articulated vehicles and the bridges themselves transformed from vital means to get across rivers and estuaries into cherished Grade I listed structures that cause hold-ups on bank holiday weekends. Some survive substantially as built, others have been widened two, three, even four times, or been rebuilt after floods or other disasters. Of course, not all ancient bridges are long or big. Some carry farm paths across streams. What Sal enjoys is their history, the reasons they were built in the first place, what she can learn from them.
We certainly don’t confine our interest to ancient, pretty bridges, though. Who can resist the gigantic Forth Rail Bridge, opened on 4 March 1890, with many belts and braces as a consequence of the collapse of the Tay railway Bridge in 1879? There is no chance whatever of this one falling down. Indeed it would probably take longer to demolish it than the seven years it took to put it up. It has always been one of the most recognisable bridges in the world indeed has become a World Heritage Site. The Forth Road Bridge of 1964 has not been so robust. Traffic on this fine looking suspension bridge turned out to be far in excess of what was expected and in any case it was plagued by corrosion in its suspension cables. It has been relegated to local status by the nearby, cable-stayed Queensferry Crossing which opened in September 2017. We got around most of the major recent spectaculars, such as the Humber, the Orwell, the Severn, Kessock, Erskine, Tamar. I was actually commissioned to work on the building of the Dartford Bridge (Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to you) which takes the M25 across the Thames just east of Greater London. On the other hand, because we gave up about 25 years ago, we missed the Queensferry Crossing, the Skye Bridge, the Flintshire Bridge and second Severn Crossing, and lots of lesser bridges.
There are more than 30 bridges over the River Thames in Greater London and I must have photographed most of them from time to time even if I haven’t scanned them. The same goes for London road and rail bridges. There is a limit to what people want to see on-line. But I must confess to other reasons. I live in London, therefore I never get around to it! I’ll do it next week. Naturally I have done the most famous and familiar several times, but the pictures are all 25 or more years old. Anyway I have an absolute aversion to doing the same thing over and over again – which a real anorak would do because, even if the bridges remain fairly constant, the surrounding cityscape changes by the day. Not too many definitives here then, but plenty of quirky details. Same goes for all the rest of our British Isles Bridges if it comes to that...
I guess the project was more like a hobby really, that Sal and I could enjoy together. Perhaps we are just Bridge anoraks when all is said and done!