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The First Severn Bridge

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:32 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

These days, travelling across the new or second Severn crossing, it is all too easy to forget that, when it was built, the original Severn Bridge, a bare mile upstream, was a crucially important piece of infrastructure that would revolutionize transport in Wales. It offered, in the words of the Queen when she arrived to formally open the bridge, "A new economic era for South Wales."

The Severn Bridge in the 1970s

The Severn Bridge in the 1970s

Whether or not that statement is true, the first Severn Bridge was certainly a remarkable piece of architecture. Officially opened on 8 September 1966, the bridge had been several years in the making and many, many more in the planning.

The first proposal for a road bridge across the Severn had been made as long ago as 1824 and came from no less a person than the renowned engineer and road builder Thomas Telford. He had been asked to recommend ways of improving the mail service between London and South Wales and quickly came to the conclusion that a bridge to span the Severn was the best option.

The huge bulk of the River Severn and its estuary had always been a problem for travellers, its long arm acting almost like a defensive wall between England and Wales. There were only two ways to get around the river. Either you could take the long road trip through Gloucester or chance - and chance was the operative word - the ferry service that ran between Aust on the English bank and Beachley in Wales.

Telford recommended a crossing - over the very part of the river where the later bridge would eventually be built. In the event Telford's suggestions came to nothing. Cost was a major factor and it was not long before railways came to be considered the main form of transport. When the Severn railway tunnel finally opened in 1886 it seemed as if the idea of spanning the river had gone for ever.

By the early years of the 20th century, however, there had been a significant increase in road traffic and in the period immediately following World War One it became clear to everyone that the old ferry boat service was struggling to cope.

As early as 1935 a Bill was proposed in Parliament, by Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire County Councils, for a bridge over the estuary. But opposition from the Great Western Railway was too strong and the Bill was vetoed. And so things remained until after the Second World War when proposals were laid for a series of major trunk roads - motorways as they became known - across the length and breadth of Britain. A road crossing of the Severn river and estuary were seen as a vital part of this network.

Planning and building the bridge took time. Things were further delayed by government sponsoring and funding on the Forth Road Bridge in Scotland but, finally, construction began in 1961. It took five years to build the bridge and cost £8 million.

From an early stage in the construction the government announced that they would be recovering at least some of the costs by levying a toll. The original charge for this - in old money - was to be two shillings and sixpence and in those early days tolls were to be collected when motorists were travelling both ways.

The tolls were to be collected on the English side of the river, a fact that caused Welsh poet Harri Webb to write:

Two lands at las connected
Across the waters wide
And all the tolls collected
On the English side.

The new structure was not just one bridge. It actually consisted of four separate parts. Firstly there was the Aust section, a bridge of box girder design with a concrete deck; then came the Severn Bridge itself, a suspension bridge with cables slung between steel towers; next was the Beachley section, another box girder structure; and finally a cable-stayed bridge over the area where the River Wye flowed into the Severn.

The finished item was a construction of some magnitude and for many months people took trips across the bridge, just to see and experience the new phenomenon. The one thing motorists did not want was to break down on the structure - it cost an arm and a leg to be towed off!

With the huge increase in car and lorry use during the final decade of the twentieth century it eventually became clear that the Severn Bridge was not able to sustain the pressure and volume of traffic. Consequently, a second Severn crossing was designed and built, to the seaward side of the original bridge. This opened on 5 June 1996, carrying the M4 and the original road across the first bridge was renamed the M48.

Since its opening in 1961 thousands - millions even - of people have crossed the Severn by the original road bridge. Like so many important pieces of infrastructure in Britain, it has been privatized, sold off to foreign investors and operators but it continues in use, closed only occasionally by high winds and, as happened in 2009, by snow and ice dropping from the steel cables onto the carriageway beneath.

Whether or not the bridge brought prosperity to South Wales remains a matter of conjecture. It is certainly a remarkable piece of engineering, a Grade I listed structure that dominates the river and estuary. It remains an important part of the history of Wales.


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