The stories behind 28 Berkshire bridges
PUBLISHED: 13:03 01 July 2016 | UPDATED: 13:07 01 July 2016
Squabbles, outrage, collapses, some British and even world records, our Thames crossing points all have stories to tell, so Sue Bromley heads east to west
We’re starting just outside the county near Runnymede, where the bridge is actually two bridges, but generally viewed as one. M25 and A30 traffic whizzes, or often crawls, across here on the Berkshire-Surrey border. The older Runnymede Bridge was partly designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, while the concrete 1980s New Runnymede Bridge became the widest such structure in Britain this century when it was expanded to six lanes on each side.
This one, between Datchet and Old Windsor is not much to look at, but is one of our favourites because it very much sums up the sometimes awkward relationship in past years between Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
Queen Anne had the first wooden one built in 1706, which was replaced by a wood on stone piers version in 1770. Bridge Two, as we might call it, lasted just 24 years until a flood destroyed it, and Bridge Three only survived 26 years from 1812.
And so, on to Round 1 of the delicious squabble. Berks and Bucks councils could not agree on the replacement, so Berkshire built half the bridge in iron while Buckinghamshire used wood on its side. In 1851 it was replaced by a full cast iron bridge. However, a large hole appeared in 1914 and another 13 years of haggling between the authorities passed before a new brick bridge was built.
Like nearby Albert Bridge, the 1851 cast iron with stone abutments version was built when roads were rerouted as the grounds of Windsor Castle expanded. During the Second World War it was severely weakened by heavyweight tanks crossing in a line, but continued to operate for a couple of decades with weight restrictions. A temporary bridge was replaced with a concrete version which will be 50 years old in 2017.
One of the great viewpoints on the rail line from Waterloo as you near Windsor, crossing the Thames between Old Windsor and Romney locks. Black Potts Ait, a little island, supports part of the iron bridge at the mouth of the Jubilee River.
Now this has been a money maker for toll collectors over the years – right back to the 1170s. Oak trees from Windsor Forest were used to build various bridges until the current one, with iron parts on granite piers, opened in 1824. Local outrage led to a high profile court case which brought tolls to an end in 1897.
More protests followed in 1970 when cracks appeared and it was decided to close the road route over the bridge between Windsor and Slough via Eton. Today though, with the Queen Elizabeth Bridge and Relief Road for traffic, we take it for granted that this is a lovely pedestrian route with great views. It was refurbished some 15 years ago, with seating provided.
Here we have the world’s oldest wrought iron railway bridge still in regular use, what’s more its ‘bow and string’ design is by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Work was delayed following objections from The Provost of Eton, but the line opened and a brick viaduct was built from 1861-65 to replace a wooden version.
The Grade II listed bridge carries trains backwards and forwards between Windsor and Slough, with connections to Paddington and, to the west, Reading and beyond.
A whole half a century has passed since this bridge forming part of Windsor Relief Road started to carry traffic between Windsor to Eton, Slough and the M4. With views up and down the river, it’s not the worst place to be when the traffic seizes up.
We suspect that some walkers using this footbridge between Buckinghamshire and Berkshire would be surprised by its origins. For a start it’s just 20 years old, but the real surprise is that it is a converted gravel conveyor belt. Its name comes from the company which extracted the gravel which left a hole ready to become Dorney Lake, the 2012 Summer Olympics rowing venue.
As we near Maidenhead we reach the final one of three bridges carrying motorways over the Thames (the others are Runnymede and the M3 Chertsey bridge). It includes pedestrian walkways for access to Bray from Dorney.
The Sounding Arch
Maidenhead Railway Bridge gets the name we like to use because of the echo it creates on the towpath beneath it. Most people know that it is one of the great works of Brunel, renowned for its sturdiness and flat brick arches. Opened in 1839, it’s grown and expanded to carry round the clock rail transport between London and the West and within three years will be part of the Crossrail experience. Quite rightly, it was given Grade I listed status in 2012.
Sitting not far from the The Sounding Arch is another Grade 1 Listed bridge, and what a history of grumpiness we have here. Like many it marks the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire border, this time at Taplow. The first wooden bridge was erected here over 700 years ago and various bridges fell into disrepair over the centuries, so many people ignored the rickety structures and used ferries instead. And the bridge tolls were considered what we would call ‘a rip off’.
One problem was getting Royal permission to use strong oaks and then, just as the situation seemed to be improving, William of Orange landed. Maidenhead residents, loyal to King James, actually broke the bridge themselves, but it only delayed rather than halted his progress.
There was more controversy in the 1770s when the bridge was in such a state it had to be replaced. The bill (it would be £2.2m today) was a shocker, and then only achieved by using Portland stone just for the arches – the rest is brick.
We may curse when queuing to cross the bridge today, but be grateful for the final act of grumpiness – in 1903 tolls there were outlawed and a large, cheering crowd immediately threw the despised tollgates into the Thames.
Tolls here were still in operation right up to 1947, when Berkshire County Council bought the present bridge from private owners. It’s at an ancient crossing site, although the first bridge was a Roman one, but no one looked after it once the Romans left.
When plans for a decent bridge were drawn up in 1836, Cookham might have ended up with a long-lasting beautiful Brunel-designed cast iron suspension bridge but owners Cookham Bridge Company were horrified by the potential cost (£1.7m today) and even when he cut back on the design felt obliged to go elsewhere.
A wooden bridge was built instead for what would be around £300,000 plus today, but within 20 years it was in such a state that costly repairs were needed. This time an iron bridge, the one we use now, was produced for an even cheaper bill than its wooden predecessor
We head into Bucks for a while with this railway bridge, another with Brunel connections. It carries the Marlow Donkey backwards and forwards between the towns of Marlow and Bourne End. A wooden bridge designed by Brunel was erected in 1854, before being rebuilt with steel in 1895. Year-long restoration in 2013 saw it painted green, with rusty parts replaced.
This road bridge between Marlow and Maidenhead is best known for what’s underneath it. Built in 1972, it provides a ‘roof’ for boat storage by the Longridge Outdoor Activity Centre.
Here we have the only suspension bridge across the non-tidal Thames. Early wooden crossings were eventually replaced by the iconic Grade I Listed bridge designed by William Clark and opened in 1832. All the chains were replaced 60 years ago and with a weight restriction and narrowed entrances it’s only used by local traffic and pedestrians.
Another record holder – this one is the longest hardwood bridge in Britain, at 88 yards long. Connecting the two counties, it was built in 1989 so that users of The Thames Path could continue on their way.
The bridge here is actually a series of walkways, an ancient right of way, across the weirs in a scenic area much loved by walkers.
We pass from Berkshire into Oxfordshire for a while at this ancient crossing point. The story is familiar, previous wooden bridges eventually replaced with a long-lasting construction, although there is evidence that the Romans built a stone bridge at Henley. This one is Grade I Listed and opened in 1786.
This wrought iron railway bridge was built in 1897, replacing a timber one. There was a ‘little local difficulty’ in the 1990s when the villages either side of the river, Wargrave and Shiplake, disagreed over plans to transform it into a ‘Millennium Bridge’ (Wargrave mainly supported this, Shiplake objected). It was eventually granted planning permission but the idea was finally dropped on cost grounds.
The bridge here has attracted artists from across the world to capture the idyllic scene. Brick-built in 1775 at the ancient Wessex and Mercia border, it’s said that this was a favoured escape route of highwayman Dick Turpin. Today traffic progress can be slow between Henley and Reading as queues take it in turns to cross the narrow bridge. Queues also build for the two ‘backwater bridges’ built in 1986 to replace wooden structures.
This footbridge links Lock, View and Heron islands, so connecting the weir complex and Lower Caversham to Reading, including the railway station which is about a quarter mile walk.
While Caversham has been part of Reading for many years, you’ll find plenty of residents there who still feel they are a village next to a large town. This road bridge, built in 1923, links Caversham to Reading centre on the south bank.
Our newest bridge, having opened only last year for pedestrians and cyclists crossing between Caversham and Reading town centre. This year it was commended in the Civic Trust Awards. Its lengthy span is supported by 14 cables attached to a tall mast. The name comes from Christchurch Meadows, the spot where it enters Caversham.
The current concrete and granite bridge opened in 1926 above Caversham Lock. It’s one of our sites with a lengthy history of crossings - the first is recorded nearly 900 years ago. In the 1600s the Berkshire side was left with just a wooden drawbridge style – and was still like that some 150 years later. An iron lattice bridge was finally built in the mid 19th century. The current concrete and granite version was opened in 1926 by Edward, Prince of Wales, later to become the abdicating Edward VIII.
This bridge is only erected when needed for the annual festival, replacing what was a ferry service. It was first used in 2008 and only festival goers have access. Although the bridge footings are permanent, the rest is temporary and can be quickly put up and taken down.
The picturesque Whitchurch bridge connects Berkshire’s Pangbourne with Oxfordshire. It’s one of only two Thames toll bridges, the other is Swinford, five miles from Oxford. Grade II listed, it was rebuilt between 2013 and 2014, with stronger support and using the original 1902 decorative lattice girders.
It costs 60p for vehicles under 3.5 tonnes to cross one way, those over that weight are charged £4. Bikes and walkers cross without charge.
It’s the man again… Brunel. The brick railway bridge here was built by him in 1838 to carry trains over the Thames in Lower Basildon to link stations in Goring and Streatley and Pangbourne – all while he had the major project at Maidenhead to deal with.
Goring & Stratley
This is our final Thames bridge before leaving Berkshire. The mainly wooden bridge with a metal roadway links the two villages. Built to replace a timber bridge erected in 1837, it has two parts, providing access between Streatley and an island, and then on from the island to Goring.