Wales

Anyone who drives up the A477 from south Pembrokeshire to the northern part of the county will pass over the magnificent structure of the Cleddau Bridge.

Cleddau River in the fog. Photograph by George Johns.

They will wonder at the glorious views down Milford Haven towards the sea, but they will probably never realise that this was the site of the last major bridge disaster in the United Kingdom.

It happened during the construction process. The bridge was - and is - of a box girder design. In other words it was built in sections or self contained boxes that were trundled out along the partially completed bridge and simply lowered onto the front of the construction.

On 2 June 1970, as one of the box girder sections for the bridge was being positioned and lowered into place, there came a deafening rumble and the bridge sections on the Pembroke Dock side of the river plummeted to the ground. Four workmen were killed and five more were injured in the disaster.

It could have been so much worse. The bridge passed virtually over the top of Pembroke Ferry, a tiny village on the southern shore of the River Cleddau, but when it collapsed the debris and the falling box girder sections missed the houses by just a few feet. It was a very lucky escape.

The River Cleddau has always divided the county of Pembrokeshire in two and before the bridge was built there were only two ways of moving from one part of the county to the other: either by driving the long way round through narrow lanes and B roads or by taking a ferry boat across the often choppy waters of the river.

From the mid 1850s the Admiralty, who ran the dockyard at Pembroke Dock, agreed to allow steam driven ferry boats to dock at their jetty and fitting out berth of Hobbs Point.

These ferries would then take people - dockyard workers amongst them - across the river to Neyland. The ferry boats ran for many years, the county council taking over the process in 1950.

The ferry boats became famous on both sides of the river, vessels like the Alumchine, Lady Magdalene and Cleddau King plying their way across the water at all times of the day and night.

When the Admiralty closed the dockyard at Pembroke Dock in the years after World War One part of the establishment was taken over by the RAF as a flying boat base. At one time this was the largest flying boat base in the world.

The huge Sunderland aircraft that lay moored out in the river for many years provided something of a hazard for the ferry boats, particularly when they were taxiing for landing or take off.

As the 20th century unfolded it became clear that the ferries, despite their interest and sentimental appeal, could not hope to cope with the growing density of traffic and in the mid 1960s it was decided to build a bridge across the Cleddau.

Actually there were to be two bridges, the first one across the main waterway and a smaller one spanning the creek at Westfield Pill in order to link to the main A477. The contract for construction was awarded to the firm of AE Farr and the estimated cost was to be £2.1 million. The aim was to complete the building process by spring 1971.

The collapse of the bridge on 2 June 1970 and the trauma of the event brought construction to a sudden halt. An inquiry was immediately called.

After much deliberation it was decided that the disaster had been caused by inadequate supports on the pier that was lowering the box girder section into place. There was also, apparently, a failure of organisation and communication on the building site itself.

As a result of the disaster and the subsequent inquiry new British Standards for the design and construction of Box Girder bridges were brought in. These seem to have been effective as there have been no further disasters involving box girder bridges - and, it is hoped, there never will be.

The Cleddau Bridge was eventually finished at a cost of £11.83 million, rather more than had been originally foreseen.

It was opened to traffic on 20 March 1975 and the ferry boats that had, for so many years, plied their trade across the river were duly towed away for scrapping.

In the first year of operation 885,900 crossings were made on the new Cleddau Bridge - considerably more than would ever have ventured onto the ferry boats.

The bridge is now a crucial part of the infrastructure of south Wales but we should never forget the cost of its creation, in both financial terms and, more importantly, in human life.

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