When William fitzOsbern was looking to building his castle in the west after the Norman invasion, Chepstow surrounded on two sides by large rivers, was the ideal location. But for people with more peaceful intentions, the rivers have proved an obstacle and bridges have been a necessity.
The first Motorway Bridge over the Severn is very modern, being almost 40 years old, but first bridge across the Wye was built by the Romans and remained in use for hundreds of years after they left Wales.
Bridging the River Wye
The Normans built a bridge in the 13th Century and wooden bridges spanned the river up until the beginning of the last century when the present Iron Bridge was built.
In 1810 magistrates who inspected the present iron bridge decided that it was “in decay” and asked for estimates to patch it up. John Rennie, the engineer who built Waterloo Bridge in London, submitted a report in respect of the repairs required to the bridge but recommended that it be replaced at an estimated cost of £41,890. The estimated cost of a new bridge was considered to be too high and no action was taken until after an accident resulting in further damage to the bridge and the tragic loss of six lives.
The contract for the current bridge was let on 14th June 1814 at an estimated cost of ££17,150 – a figure that eventually rose to nearly £20,000. The bridge was made of cast iron, the total length being 372 feet (113 metres) with the span of the centre arch being 112 feet (34 metres).
John Rastrick of the Bridgenorth firm Hazeldine, Rastrick and Brodie built the current bridge. The design has been credited to rennie but Rastrick is understood to have produced a much more elegant version of the plans that Rennie submitted for the repair of the old bridge.
The bridge that is still in use today was opened on 24th July 1816 with an elaborate Form of Ceremony: “Company to assemble in the Square at One O’clock. The procession. A pair of Clours. Band of Music. Solicitor. Magistrates walking abreast Seniors in the centre. Gentlemen, Farmers, Tradesmen, and others who may choose to join the Procession walking two by two.”
The age of the railway made a second bridge across the Wye necessary and the tubular suspension bridge that took the Cardiff to Gloucester railway line across the river was designed by one of Britain’s most famous engineers – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The line from the present station, (then called Chepstow West), to Swansea was opened on 18th June 1850 and the line linking Chepstow East station at Tidenham and Gloucester came into use on 19th September 1851. Passengers were taken between the stations by coach until the bridge was opened in July 1852. Brunels’s tubular suspension bridge was dismantled and replaced by the present span in 1962.
The latest bridge to cross the Wye was the Road Bridge opened in 1988 to take the inner relief road, the A48, across the river. Prior to this all the road traffic from Gloucestershire had to pass through Chepstow and over the Cast Iron Bridge.
Bridging the River Severn
The idea of a bridge across the River Severn had been a dream for 1,900 years but it took modern techniques to overcome the problems. Until the bridge was opened by the Queen on 8th September 1966, the only way to travel from the West of England to South Wales by road involved a 50 mile detour around Gloucester or face a lengthy wait to board a ferry. By the 1960’s the Beachley – Aust ferry was being swamped. The largest of the three ferries carried just 17 vehicles! Railway passengers were able to avoid the long detour via Gloucestershire since the Great Western Railway opened their Severn Tunnel in 1886 and for a time the Severn Tunnel was used to transport cars, which were loaded onto flat wagons, between Severn Tunnel Junction and Pilning.
The Severn Bridge
The first designs for a bridge over the river Severn were submitted as early as 1845 but no attempt was made to build. The task of building the Severn Bridge to a modern design was given to the Associated Bridge Builders consortium, which had previously built the Forth Bridge in Scotland. Work on the 90,000 ton anchorages and foundations began in 1961. The bridge was completed in five years and four months and the complex, including the crossing of the Wye and motorway links cost a total of £16 million in contrast to the £238 million for the second crossing built a couple of miles down stream which opened in 1996.
When the bridge opened, its span was the seventh largest in the world. In the first full year of operation 6 million vehicles used it. Prior to the opening of the Second Severn Crossing an average of 50,000 vehicles a day used it. 3 times the first year volume! The highest daily usage was on 26th May 1989 when 76,182 vehicles crossed it.
The importance of the Severn Bridge has been officially recognised with its listing as a “Class 1 Listed Building” – the highest classification possible. More recently the Civic Society has included the Severn Bridge in their listing of 6 buildings of particular architectural merit.
For details of Severn Bridge Closures visit the Severn River Crossing website.