It’s been a fairly uneventful couple of weeks here. The weather has been horrible, but the 410 has been out and about – it’s a car that gets used year-round. More by luck than judgement I never needed to actually go out in the snow, but since then a couple of trips up to London have been and gone. It’s a great car in town, long but easy to squeeze though narrow gaps, and the automatic is nice in traffic. Yesterday however was an early morning run down the M4 to Wales to visit the Newport passport office. Why is it that even though I’ve been acutely aware of the impending expiry of my passport for months I leave it till the last minute before actually getting around to sorting it out? The same-day service that the good folk of the UK Passport Authority offer is in fact a 4-hour service so I had a morning to kill in Newport, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do – go and see the Newport transporter bridge.
Transporter bridges have long fascinated me, although I’d never actually seen one until in Bilbao a few years ago, in the 410 then too. Transporter bridges are defined as “a rigid purpose built structure at high level over the crossing from which a gondola is suspended.” They were the invention of French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin towards the end of the nineteenth century, and provide an elegant way to cross a river without interfering with shipping. Their heyday, if you can call it that, was around the turn of the century, although no more than a couple of dozen were built worldwide. Eight are left today, of which only about six remain in any way functional. While they were initially seen as a quick way of crossing a river, as traffic levels grew in the 20th century they gradually found themselves unable to cope and the demand for conventional bridges to replace them was irresistible. There are three left in the UK. Bridges in Newport and Middlesbrough are still in service, but the Bank Quay transporter bridge in Warrington is now derelict, and appears on English Heritage’s at-risk register. As I result I was keen to go and take a ride over the River Usk while waiting for my passport. The bridge is just south of the city centre, near the docks, but when I got down there it was disappointing to find that it is currently shut for maintenance on weekdays. I wanted to stop and look around anyway as I’d read there was a visitor centre and small museum, but even that was closed too. Chatting with one of the men working on the gondola however, I was told to go and knock on the door anyway – the boss was in and might be persuaded to let me in. And so it was that I got a quick private look around and it was fascinating. The people working there were so friendly and enthusiastic about their bridge. It is the longest, fastest and, apparently, smoothest of the surviving bridges. They were also interested in the 410, and in turn I learned about the well-known Newport dentist who had swapped his two Rolls-Royces for a new racing green Bristol back in the fifties.
Go and have a look at their bridge if you’re ever in south Wales. Although designed by a Frenchman, like a Bristol it represents excellent British (well… Welsh) civil engineering and construction. I was told that it remains to this day the largest engineering construction in the world to be completed without any serious injury or fatality, an impressive achievement today and incredible for 1906, especially with divers under bells digging the footings for the towers. I need to go back and actually ride on the bridge next time. And when I’ve done that, well not all the remaining functional bridges take cars, but apart from Bilbao, which I’ve already been on, they are all in northern Europe, so eventually I’d like to tick them all off my list of things to photograph behind the car!