The Menai Suspension Bridge

Wednesday 29 January 2014, 09:38

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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On 30 January 1826, as bands played and spectators waved flags, sang popular songs and cheered their hearts out, the Menai Suspension Bridge was formally opened. Ynys Môn - or Anglesey as it also known - was at last permanently connected to the mainland of Wales.

The Menai Suspension Bridge. Photo: Nev C The Menai Suspension Bridge. Photo: Nev C

For thousands of years the only way to cross the Menai Strait had been to walk it at low tide - a perilous enterprise at the best of times - or to make the journey by ferry boat. That was equally dangerous, boats being regularly upset or wrecked. In 1785 one ferry became stranded on a sand bank in the strait and, after wind and tide had done their work, only one person out of 55 survived the experience.

The main industry of the island was farming, and the traditional way of getting cattle to market on the mainland was to swim them across the strait - something travellers did only at their dire peril. For the farmers it was just the way things were. None of the methods of crossing was particularly effective.

Inefficient as it may have been, nothing was done about improving communications with and in Wales until the Act of Union of 1800 turned the problem of developing more effective connections with Ireland into something of a pressing matter.

Holyhead on Ynys Môn was a port that had traded with Irish towns for many years. Now it was identified as one of the main terminals for the ferries running across the Irish Sea to Dublin.  With the need to ensure that the Irish Mails were both secure and efficient, the government began to think about improving the road connections between London and the Welsh port.

The engineer Thomas Telford was given the task of improving the main London to Holyhead road, a route that in time became the A5. Insightful and skilled as he was, Telford quickly realised that the key to a fast, efficient connection between the country's capital and the north Wales coast, was bridging the Menai Strait.

Telford surveyed the area and soon identified the area around Bangor on the mainland side and a small village on Ynys Môn which later became the town of Menai Bridge. This would be the location for his bridge.

Sunset over Menai Strait. Photo: Eiona Roberts Sunset over Menai Strait. Photo: Eiona Roberts

There were difficulties. The strait was often used by the sailing ships of the time - warships and merchant vessels alike - and so there had to be at least 100 foot of clearance between the bridge and the water. Even during the building of the bridge, there was no scaffolding allowed as this would have interfered with the free passage of shipping.

Work began in 1819 with the building of the huge towers on either side of the strait. Made from limestone quarried at nearby Penmon - brought by barge to the site - the towers were of hollow construction, reinforced with metal girders and stanchions inside. The problem of spanning the strait, a distance of nearly 600 feet, was solved by creating 16 giant chain cables made from iron bars, each of them weighing 121 tons.

These cables, Telford decreed, would be strung from the towers across the water in huge loops that resembled the mooring ropes that kept the ferries at Holyhead tied to the quay. In order to stop them rusting, the cables were soaked in linseed oil and then painted.

The stone work on the towers was finished in 1824, just five years after it had begun. Stringing the giant cables took a further two years.

The opening of the bridge in January 1826 was a joyous occasion, both for the dignitaries and for the local people who could now make the crossing with ease and in relative comfort. For the travellers journeying between London and Holyhead, the bridge shaved nine hours off the trip. It might still have taken 27 hours - by rickety and draughty stage coaches - but it was a lot better than the previous time of a day and a half that had been standard for the journey.  

The Menai Bridge was the first modern suspension bridge in the world and was one of the great industrial wonders of the age. However, almost from the beginning it was clear that, at some stage, improvements would have to be made.

Thomas Telford's bridge over the Menai Strait. Photo: Ian Thomas Telford's bridge over the Menai Strait. Photo: Ian

The roadway was a mere 24 feet wide and the construction was such that there was a weight limit of 4.5 tons - not too much of a problem when most traffic was horse drawn but when motor vehicles became the norm serious improvements had to be made.

In 1938 the iron chains that had held the roadway in place for over 100 years were replaced by steel ones, thus strengthening the construction - and, interestingly, the bridge remained open throughout the modernisation process.

As if to prove that modern techniques are not always more efficient, the bridge was closed for a month in 1999 to allow the roadway to be re-surfaced and strengthened. Apart from that it has remained open and in service.

The Menai Bridge was, and is, a remarkable piece of engineering - a fact that was celebrated when the structure featured on the reverse side of a £1 coin issued in 2005.

The Menai Bridge remains the major route for people travelling by car to and from Holyhead, nearly 200 years after it was first opened - some achievement.

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