The domino effect of one simple bridge closure - Pangbourne

PUBLISHED: 09:37 22 November 2013 | UPDATED: 09:43 22 November 2013

The bridge, viewed from the Whitchurch bank

The bridge, viewed from the Whitchurch bank

MAUREEN MCLEAN

For a handful of change, editor Jan Raycroft and photographer Maureen McLean set off on a very short but enjoyable break due to vanish for the winter.

Take a trip to pretty Pangbourne and beyond the obvious delights of this village with its lovely eateries and fascinating shops, there is another little treat that will cost just 40p.

That’s the 2013 fee for cars crossing over the picturesque Whitchurch Bridge, one of just two toll bridges left on the Thames, into South Oxfordshire and its rising countryside of villages, traditional pubs and entrancing scenery.

Since we assume that, like us, you’ll be coming back into Berkshire, the price is 80p once the return crossing is handed in to the smiling toll controller who then raises the barrier for you to pass. On foot, of course, you don’t pay at all. However, all this is about to change from October 3 when the bridge closes until April next year for reconstruction.

It’s going to be a major headache for the frequent users as some 5,800 cross it during a typical working day when the schools are open. Apart from visitors, many local people use a Bridge Card, the equivalent of a season ticket to cut down costs.

With the nearest alternative crossings at Reading’s Caversham Bridge, some six miles downstream, or at Streatley-on-Thames, around five miles upstream, it means many commuters and ‘school run’ parents face quite a circular route to perhaps complete a journey which used to take them a few minutes and will empty the fuel tank much quicker.

For traders in Pangbourne there is the additional concern that those who usually pop across the county border to do their shopping will head elsewhere. They will be relying on local support during the six months to see them through difficult trading times.

So how has all this come about? Let’s start with the history of the bridge.

The third bridge

While the current bridge is undoubtedly a pretty tourist attraction on the Thames, it’s coming to end of its useful life, having been constructed back in 1902 to a gently arching design by Joseph Morris and built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Ltd. It has four spans of riveted lattice girders over steel column piers with masonry and brickwork abutments.

It’s actually the third bridge to be placed on the spot, one of the earliest crossing points of the river, with a ferry originally running between the Berkshire bank and the mill at Whitchurch. In 1792 local resident Robert Micklem, joined by Samuel Gardiner and Vanderstegen, succeeded in getting an Act of Parliament that would allow them to replace the ferry with a toll bridge.

Since then, and right up to today, the deal has been that the company – which now includes descendants of the original owners – could charge tolls but were responsible for building up funds to maintain and replace the bridge when necessary.

Their Company of Proprietors grew in numbers and the first bridge, built by a Mr Treacher, was a fairly steep wooden construction with some ornamental decorations.

By 1852 it became necessary to replace this bridge and a ferry ran once again while another wooden bridge was built. Within 50 years this too was deteriorating and it was time for an iron bridge to be put in place. The four-span current bridge has cast iron trestle piers and a parapet of wrought iron latticework which gives it a unique look. It has lasted 111 years with a regular maintenance system, strengthening and skilled repairs throughout the last century.

There is a 1792 Toll House next to the bridge and at one time tolls were collected at the porch there. These days travellers either use their electronic Bridge Card to raise an automatic barrier, or pay 40p to the attendants in a toll booth which operates from 7am to 9pm on weekdays and for slightly shorter periods at weekends, although The Whitchurch Bridge Company is empowered to collect tolls for its upkeep at any time.

The new bridge

The best news for bridge lovers is that the company intends to retain the existing look for the reconstruction, including the pretty latticework. This project is being managed by Oxfordshire County Council, with architectural design by Jacobs, and Atkins UK being responsible for detailed engineering design and contract supervision. Birse Civil Ltd are the main contractors.

When complete the new bridge could actually carry vehicles of up to 44 tonnes, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, the 7.5 tonne limit will stay (users over 3.5 tonnes had to pay £3 each way this year).

In the past couple of months the contractors have built up a compound of supplies for the project on the adjoining Pangbourne River Meadow. On 3 October the bridge will close, although a temporary footbridge will open. From 4 November all river traffic will be stopped from Whitchurch Lock for about 250m downstream, and this will not restart until the end of March next year.

In the meantime there will be plenty of signs up in Pangbourne, and on the Oxfordshire side of the border, warning of the bridge closure. Satnav companies are also being informed to ensure they don’t direct drivers to a ‘quickest route’ which ends up in a dead end beside the Thames.

The new main bridge is set to reopen on 14 April. The cost of a Bridge Card will rise from 20p per crossing to 29.4p when the bridge reopens in April next year.

It’s going to be a winter of frustration for some, that’s for sure. But at least we can say it only happens every century or so and the new look bridge will be built to last.

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