Betjeman was indifferent towards bridges. Whether cast iron or post-war concrete, or from the first Elizabethan age or the second, he was always happy to proffer an astute observation or informed opinion. One such remark opened his 1960 Daily Telegraph article ‘Bridges Elegant or Ugly’ when he wrote ‘It is difficult to make a bridge look ugly, though this rare feat has been achieved in the viaducts over the M1’.
Although principals of bridge construction have changed little over the past millennium, since the Industrial Revolution the aesthetics of connecting railways and roads across rivers and valleys has progressed enormously. Nowhere is the relationship between design and function more profound than in the bridge and nowhere is this better explored than in Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a sibling rivalry’ (Yale, 2007).
Public bridge building flourished in the 18th century, examples such as Westminster Bridge (Charles Lebelye, 1739) and Pulteney Bridge in Bath (Robert Adam, 1769) connected people with commerce and village with town. But Betjeman took a greater interest in private bridges, manmade structures that complimented nature and landscape, he wrote ‘What is more natural than that an English nobleman should want a round-arched bridge…over the river or lake in his park’. For grace and poise there is no better example of how architecture and civil engineering hit head-on than the nobleman’s Palladian bridge, for many the high water mark of English bridge building. Perhaps the finest is Blenheim’s ornamental parkland bridge (Vanburgh and Hawksmoor, 1708), an early-Enlightenment wonder that encased a dining room and water engines making its purpose far more functional than just a crossing point. And then there are examples at Wilton (Roger Morris, 1736) near Salisbury, Prior Park (built by Richard Jones, 1755) in Bath and at Hagley (Thomas Pitt, c.1764) near Birmingham.
With the exception of the original Westminster Bridge these structures can still be seen in their natural habitats. Hagley however has undergone a transformation. Lost, most likely in the 19th century, beneath a century or more of undergrowth − found by Joe Hawkins, Head of Landscape at Hagley Park, who subsequently excavated it, researched it and painstakingly rebuilt the lost timber pavilion on top of its original stone base. It is a remarkable example of what can be achieved when the enthusiasm of an individual is harnessed and supported by the owner.
Hagley is not an isolated example of admirable conservation and restoration. The National Lottery has supported recent work at Llangollen, a chain bridge (1929) than spans the river Dee, and thanks to the local authority and grant funders Victoria Bridge (James Dredge, 1836) in Bath has now been removed from English Heritage’s risk register. Betjeman, a man who loved the work of John Rennie, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir James Fowler, would have applauded such restorations and no doubt would have been a great champion of the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards which are handed out annually by the Institute of Civil Engineers.
Six years after writing his Telegraph article the Severn Bridge (Freeman Fox and Partners, 1966) was opened. First proposed in 1824 by Thomas Telford (who had just built the Menai Bridge linking Wales with Anglesey) the M48 road bridge was effectively 142 years late, but was befitting a nation that had just won the football World Cup. Betjeman’s appears to have remained silent on its sleek aesthetic and technical excellence, perhaps in submission to, or recognition of, human advancement or, more likely, because the railway held more fascination that the road, the steam locomotive boiler more than the internal combustion engine
Judging by his comments on the ugliness of the M1 bridges it is fair to say that modern bridges may well have incurred his wrath. But what, we wonder, would he have made of the Millennium Bridge crossing the Thames? This was a testament of true partnerships where the architects Norman Foster and Partners worked alongside the engineers Ove Arup and Partners and the sculptor Anthony Caro. However, this was no ordinary pedestrian bridge; this was a bridge that wobbled. In fact it wobbled so much that accusing fingers pointed each and every way after the bridge was first opened and subsequently closed for remedial works. Betjeman would have seen the funny side of this and perhaps would have put pen to paper reminding us of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s sentiment that there must be ‘No shuddering’ in bridge construction. However, beyond the humour he would have seen it as many do today, a masterpiece of minimalist design where all elements flow seamlessly into the next.