Beauty and the Bridge

February 14th, 2019

Bridges have been linking our islands and coasts for centuries, and Britain once led the world with its bridge-building prowess. We have a look at some of North Wales and Snowdonia’s finest bridges.

If only the coastline of Wales had been considerate enough to cut its craggy outline in smooth sweeps then much head scratching, deliberating, building and money could have been saved over the centuries.

In super human efforts to manipulate nature, we have not let a stretch of water stand in the way of progress or efficiency; but bridging the crevices, channels, estuaries, gorges and rivers created millions of years ago by the sea took some ingenious ideas and engineering skills.

The building of bridges dates back to Roman times but because they were expensive to build and maintain bridges were usually erected in places where tolls could be charged – like in busy cities to cross rivers.

But as the industrial revolution swept across Britain, it became increasingly important to get goods and people further away and faster than ever before. It was this need for efficiency that saw Britain lead the way in bridge engineering and construction during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The very first iron built bridge in the world was unveiled to stunned crowds as it spanned the Severn Gorge (now known as Ironbridge Gorge) in Shropshire in 1779. And when the railways steamed across the country in the mid 1800’s, hundreds of bridges were built to transport these mighty symbols of industry over rivers, across estuaries and through valleys.

Today we are celebrating some of Wales’ finest bridges. All are unique in their purpose, but all stand as a testament to Britain’s glory days as the finest bridge building nation in the world.

Missing Link

With two statuesque bridges now linking Anglesey to mainland Wales, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago Wales’ largest island was actually completely cut off from the mainland. Until the early 1800s, islanders had to rely on a perilous ferry crossing to negotiate the swirling waters of the Menai Straits.

After the “Act of Union” of 1800 when Ireland was officially incorporated into the parliament of Great Britain, the need for fast and cheap transport between Britain and Ireland was urgent. Holyhead had been chosen as the main British port between the two countries and Thomas Telford, one of the most formidable engineers and road builders of the time, was tasked with improving the road links between London and the new port.

He surmised that there was only one answer to link this remote corner of Wales to an efficient journey to London, and that was a bridge over the Menai Straits. At the time, Telford’s proposal was one of the most ambitious projects the country had ever seen, and would create the first modern suspension bridge in the world.

Work began in earnest in 1819, when the two towers on either side of the straits were built. This was soon followed by the sixteen giant cables that span the bridge. The central section of chain weighed in at a whopping 23 tonnes, and it took 150 men to manoeuvre it into place.

The bridge was completed and opened, to the public’s great astonishment, in 1826 and not only did it shave a staggering nine hours off the journey time (travellers and goods could now complete the slightly less arduous trek from Holyhead to London in 27 hours) but it was revered as one of the finest bridges in the world.

Telford’s striking creation still stands proud between the mainland and the island of Anglesey and is one of the area’s most iconic emblems of a rich industrial heritage and a glorious age of design.

Track the Changes

As the effects of the industrial revolution steamed their way to the coast of north Wales in the mid 1800’s, it brought not only industry and employment but also a valuable commodity that this stretch of Welsh coast hadn’t seen before – tourists; with holidays to enjoy and money to spend.

By 1869 an important new railway line linked the Welsh coast with the Midlands, the North West of England and London. Barmouth’s previous history as a sleeping fishing village was about to be changed forever.

Residents of the smoggy, busy cities of industrial England cried out for clean, restorative seaside air. With the fast new railway links in place, Barmouth was the perfect destination for the holidaying city dwellers and it soon became a fashionable holiday hotspot. It tempted Wordsworth away from his beloved Lake District and was a draw for Victorian celebrities such as Shelley, Darwin and Tennyson.

And these happy tourists were greeted by the iconic Barmouth Bridge, opened in 1867 and now as much a part of the town as colourful rock or donkey rides. It’s the longest viaduct in Wales at almost 2,300 feet, and featured some ground-breaking technology for the time; each iron column had to be sunk 120 foot below the sea bed and a clever sliding section was included at the northern end so that ships could pass.