Saturday, April 6, 2013

A bridge for all seasons - unless it's closed

An ingenious resolution to a tidal headache
I was delighted to read recently that Newport City Council has at last re-opened the Grade I listed Transporter Bridge

The 106-year-old bridge, which has been threatened with permanent closure more than once in its long history and has been temporarily closed more times that I care to remember, will remain open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm, until the end of September.

The Transporter Bridge was designed to overcome a very specific problem – the unusually high tidal range of the 120km long River Usk. The vast variation in water levels meant it was impossible for a ferry to operate at low tide, but difficult for tall-masted ships to pass under an ordinary bridge at high tide.  

A rather unusual river crossing
Fortunately for we Newportonians, the brilliant French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin managed to overcome the tidal problem with his innovative design. A 74m tower on each bank of the river linking a horizontal beam at 54 metres above the road provided plenty of head height for passing ships, while a hanging gondola transported vehicles across the river at a speed of three metres per second.
When it opened on September 12 1906 (Godfrey Charles Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar performed the official opening ceremony), it was the town’s second river crossing (after Town Bridge); in 2013, it’s the fourth vehicular crossing in the city (there is also a footbridge alongside the university) and the lowest crossing point on the River Usk.
The Transporter Bridge's claim to fame is featuring in the 1959 film Tiger Bay starring Hayley Mills, although artistic licence saw it located near Cardiff rather than Newport docks.
My dad was born in the shadow of this giant, in a tiny cottage long since demolished. Although I grew up on the opposite side of the river on Corporation Road, the bridge also played a major part in my own childhood.

The gondola holds six carefully positioned vehicles
We kids would often walk the two miles or so to Coronation Park. Once we’d tired of the playground, we’d hop onto the bridge’s gondola and while away the afternoon crossing the River Usk. I remember being fascinated by the orderly way in which up to six cars drove onto the platform and waited, stationary, until the gondola reached the far bank, only to disembark just as impressively.

There was no charge for pedestrians, although it did cost 5p to walk over the top and you had to ask one of the operators to unlock the gates for you. If you happened to descend on one side of the bank while the gondola was being loaded on the other, you could be imprisoned on the lower steps for up to ten minutes.

I must have been about fifteen when I finally plucked up the courage to climb the tower steps and take the high road. I was frightened to death, perhaps one of the reasons I had no inclination to repeat the experience until around 2000.

Smiling but terrified @ 1976
Another reason was that the bridge closed in 1985 due to wear and tear. It remained closed for a decade, continuing to dominate Newport’s skyline but sadly dormant. In 1995 it reopened after a £3m refurbishment, but when more maintenance was needed at the end of 2007, the bridge was again closed, its future uncertain. 

There was a rumour that our beloved bridge could have the same fate as the 1831 London Bridge, which was dismantled in 1967 and sold to the US for a cool million. It now stands proudly in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it forms the centre of an 'English' theme park. Fortunately, our fears proved unfounded or maybe the price was just too high.

Around 2000, I ventured across the top again (I know it was a Bank Holiday Monday because, at that point, it was the only time it was open to the public). I took my three daughters along, two teenagers and a little one. I tried desperately to hide my terror but it was no good. 

As my youngest hopped and skipped her way across the bridge, I clung to the barrier and edged along, trying hard not to look down. I’ve kept well away from those towering steel girders for more than a decade.

My daughters are fearless at the top of the Transporter Bridge
Fast forward to July 2010 when Newport hosted the prestigious Ryder Cup and vast amounts of money were spent trying to give visiting golf fans the impression that Newport was a vibrant, modern city. Call me cynical, but I don’t think the re-opening of the Transporter Bridge that year was unrelated.

You’d think that would be the end of the story, but was it ever? In 2011, the bridge both closed and re-opened. By now, I think most local people had lost track of whether they could cross the river in Pillgwenlly or not (I certainly had). I presume that’s why the official Wales Coast Path directs people farther up river to the unimaginatively named City Bridge (I actually remember our local newspaper, the South Wales Argus, running a competition to name this new bow-string arch bridge and that, it seems, was the best anyone could come up with!). Anyway, most people still refer to it as the SDR (Southern Distributor Road) bridge after the major road it’s located on.

But interesting as the SDR bridge is, it will never dominate Newport’s skyline in the way the Transporter Bridge has done for over a century.

Towering over the River Usk for 106 years
I doubt I’ll ever pluck up sufficient courage to climb those steps again. But that doesn't mean I don’t applaud Newport council for finally recognising this magnificent structure, the largest of the eight remaining in the world, as Newport’s most significant tourist attraction.

I recently suggested to my grand-daughters, aged eight and six, that they might like to follow in grandma’s footsteps and venture up those flights of steel steps but they weren't too keen. 

Perhaps I should have reminded them that with the bridge’s chequered history of closure and re-opening, 2013 might be their last opportunity to cross it as children.
Charges have gone up substantially since my childhood. In 2013, you’ll pay:
  • Cars: £1.00 per crossing
  • Foot passengers and cyclists: 50p per crossing
  • Day visitor including access the motor house and high level walkway: £2.50 (children and concessions: £1.50)

Travelling on the gondola was a childhood passion

1 comment:

  1. Your readers might be interested in this Youtube video, posted last year:


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