BARRY LEIGHTON reminisces about Swindon’s lost bridges with a man who has written three books about them...
THEY were the roundabouts and traffic lights of their day, equally essential – and occasionally just as frustrating – to the free flow of transport and people in and around Swindon.
Today, hardly anything remains of the canal bridges that were once a common sight in Central Swindon and its environs and played such an important part of everyday life.
The urban landscape has changed irrevocably but canal historian Doug Small is helping to keep alive the memory of both the waterway and “the lost bridges of Swindon” in an ongoing project to collect and collate photos and information.
Doug, 69, an archivist for the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, has so far produced three books featuring old images of the canal and its bridges.
A member of the trust since 1988 he says: “I am always seeking out information about the canal and the people who built and worked on it. “Although it was around 60 miles long it passed through very few towns – Swindon being probably the biggest. This, maybe, was why the canal was so badly documented. “Photographers seemed almost to have completely ignored its existence,” he says.
Even Swindon’s prolific snapper William Hooper, who operated during the first two decades of the 20th Century, “seems to have had little interest in it,” says Doug.
He adds: “I am always searching for information and ask for anyone who may have anything relating to the canal or its bridges – however remotely – to please contact me.”
This year is the centenary of the official closure of the canal as a result of moves by the Swindon Corporation to finally put the malodorous, rubbish-clogged and increasingly redundant waterway out of its misery.
To mark the occasion we are publishing these images of the town’s 19th Century canal bridges, some rarely seen, courtesy of Doug and the Trust, which aims to bring the canal back to Swindon as a stunning 21st Century environmental feature.
Not possessing any rivers of note, bridges were virtually non-existent in the predominantly rural settlement of Swindon over the centuries.
All that changed when the Wilts & Berks – linking the Kennet and Avon at Semington near Melksham with the Thames at Abingdon – forged a path through the countryside below Swindon Hill (Old Town) at the dawn of the 19th Century.
As an army of navvies gouged out the channel and in 1810 filled it with water these essential new structures, at first rickety, lightweight wooden efforts, began to pop up along the route.
An off-shoot canal, the North Wilts from Swindon to Latton, saw more bridges emerge.
Over the years they arrived in many shapes and sizes: swing bridges, swivel bridges, drawbridges, lift bridges, stone bridges, elevated footbridges.
For more than a century you could hardly make your way around town without crossing one every few minutes.
Their names became part of everyday parlance in New Swindon, which swiftly materialised around the GWR works from the 1840s: Black Bridge, Golden Lion Bridge, Bullen’s Bridge, Queenstown Bridge, Whale Bridge, Stone Bridge, Fleet Street Bridge, York Road Bridge… Once a vital part of Swindon’s infrastructure they are virtually all gone now, with a handful of stubborn exceptions that have been adapted to modern use, such those at Cambria Bridge Road, Milton Road and Shrivenham Road.
People were heavily reliant upon Swindon’s many bridges to get to work. The canal, a formidable barrier, could only be passed when the bridges were down. When they were raised to let barges through, pedestrians, cyclists and the drivers of assorted horse-drawn conveyances had to wait.
It was not uncommon for employees of the Great Western Railway to turn up cap-in-hand, several minutes late, grimly informing the foreman: “Sorry guv, the bridge was up.” Great excuse, but it was often true.
The sheer rapidity of New Swindon’s growth created havoc as bridge building struggled to keep up with an escalating population. Richard Jefferies, Swindon’s Victorian man of nature, poetry, literature and – as a columnist for the Advertiser – all things relevant to the town, became quite hot under the collar about it all.
In his 1867 book Jefferiesland – a History of Swindon, he huffs: “This Bridge Street, now so much used, was formerly a mere track made by waggon wheels which crossed the canal at the Golden Lion Bridge. That bridge, by the by, is a disgrace to the town.”
Golden Lion Bridge – today, graphically preserved by muralist Ken White near the site of another once busy but now long gone crossing, The Whale Bridge in Fleming Way – was bang in the heart of the town centre.
Located at the junction of Bridge Street and Canal Walk, the crossing was named after the pub next door. There were three Golden Lion Bridges; the first built in 1803, was wooden and eventually proved inadequate. Its successor, as described by Eric Tull in his book Canal Days in Swindon (1993), was an ingenious iron lift bridge built by the GWR deploying a series of chains, gears, levers, pillars and pulleys.
But continued concern over hold-ups was so great that the public chipped in to pay for the raised footbridge so beautifully depicted by Ken White from a Victorian photograph.
l Doug can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org or: 01 628 544666.
Details of his his books are at: http://books.gentle-highways.info/