About a month or so ago now, I made a flying visit to north Wales – one castle, a handful of hills, and two Telford bridges.
Unlike Scotland, which was being opened up at least partly for its own benefit, Telford’s works in Wales were primarily concerned with access to Ireland, after the union of 1801 – with rapid movement and communication between London and Dublin suddenly far more important, and Holyhead the main port for Dublin, a good road link across north Wales suddenly became essential.
The main achievement of the route was the bridge across the Menai Straits, the first suspension bridge to be designed for traffic, and on an entirely new scale (although it did take so long to build that the much smaller Union Bridge, a few miles upstream from Berwick, became the first suspension bridge to open to traffic, although it was started later).
My first stop in Wales was Conwy, and so I started with the smaller and slightly later bridge there, now closed to traffic, and flanked on one side by Stephenson’s railway bridge, enclosed in a box, and on the other by the modern road bridge – this has always been an obvious crossing point, and the first bridge replaced an old ferry.
The bridge looks a bit like a little castle itself – its towers, and the towers of the later railway bridge, were built to echo the towers of the castle, which overlooks the river crossing.
The chains of the bridge are actually anchored into the castle walls on the Conwy side.
The bridge still has its original iron suspension chains, four layers of links, although cables were added in 1903 to strengthen them.
Although the bridge is beautiful, it was these chains which really struck me, suddenly startlingly real. These days we’re used to things which do their job without apparent effort – maybe metal ropes, or maybe no obvious supports. But these chains are clearly from the early days of using metal, and someone has thought carefully about how large a piece could be cast, and how they could be joined, and how many would be needed to take the weight, and there’s a real sense of force about it.
The design of the main Menai Straits bridge was dictated by the setting – with strong currents and a shifting bed, building the piers for a more traditional bridge would have been very difficult, and it was also necessary to leave the space, and the height, for tall ships to pass through the straits. But it was a real leap forward in construction – the concept wasn’t new, but earlier suspension bridges had been small pedestrian ones, and this was the longest bridge span in the world when it was built.
The chains on both sides are anchored in tunnels driven deep into the ground, but on the mainland side they also run through the tollhouse – tolls were charged for crossing the bridge until 1940.
A plaque on the tollhouse (or two plaques, one in English and one in Welsh) describes the bridge as an ‘international historic civil engineering landmark’, which seems fair enough.
Telford’s name as engineer is carved into the tower of the bridge itself, although I don’t know when the carving was done.
One of the piers is built on a little rocky island, but the others stand in the water.
The original iron chains were replaced by steel cables in 1938 – getting the cables into place was the biggest challenge of the original construction, with cables run up to the towers on either side, and the central sections then floated into place below and raised by a team of 150 men.
The bridge is a local landmark, of course – the pub at the far side has the bridge on its sign, although the pub on the mainly side is slightly bizarrely called The Antelope!
Down at the waterside is a building which predates the bridge, and which was once the ferry house for one of the boats crossing the water.