Bristol's banana bridge - Bedminster's bright, beguiling bowstring bedevilled by bounded budgets


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In the second of my very occasional and sporadic series on Bristol's bridges, we're looking at the Banana Bridge.

One thing I probably don't need to explain is the name. It's bright yellow and undeniably banana-shaped in outline, but I can't help thinking this rather flippant nickname undersells the elegance of this bridge. I moaned last time that the Gaol Ferry Bridge was a bit of a dog's breakfast, aesthetically, but this one is a very good-looking bridge in my opinion.

This is down to the bowstring design, which as it turns out is also critical to the history of how this bridge came to be here. And I don't just mean that as a poetic way of saying "how it came to exist", but how it came to be here.

See, this bridge wasn't built here. It actually began life shortly downstream.

When the New Cut was first dug in the early 19th century, two cast iron arch bridges were erected by the Coalbrookdale company, who had famously built the Iron Bridge in Shropshire. Hill's Bridge was where Bath Bridge is today - unfortunately it was hit by a steamship in 1855, collapsing completely with two deaths as a result, and so had to be rebuilt. The second was called Harford's Bridge and was more or less where Bedminster Bridge is today.

By the 1880s the city Corporation was considering whether it was still fit for purpose, and this image gives you a good idea why. It was steep and narrow, and although the city's engineer Thomas Howard, who drew up an exhaustive report, was confident that it was still structurally capable of carrying its traffic load, he was somewhat concerned that it was vulnerable to a similar bridge-strike incident as Hill's Bridge.

The city thus decided to built a new, stronger, wider Bedminster Bridge, the one you see here today, and if you're wondering what on earth this has got to do with the Banana bridge, well...

The Town Council passed a resolution that before the bridge could be closed for rebuilding, quote, "a temporary bridge will be first constructed for the convenience of foot passengers, as with so important a district as Bedminster it would be very detrimental [if] communication with the other portions of the city were delayed even for a short time".

Cut to Gaol Ferry bridge being closed for over a year and I really don't even need to say anything, do I?

Anyway, the temporary Bedminster bridge was of course the Banana bridge, built from wrought iron in 1882 by Chepstow-based Finch and Company. Once the new Bedminster bridge was complete, on 26 February 1884 it was rather ingeniously moved to its present location.

On a low tide, four eighty-ton barges with 23-foot high timber scaffolding frames on top moved into position below the bridge. As the tide rose, the bridge sat onto those frames and was lifted clear off its footings. Tugboats then pulled the barges the short distance upstream to the new location, where the barges were anchored in place with the bridge hovering above its new abutments. As the tide went out, the bridge simply lowered itself into place.

This whole process was made possible by the bowstring or tied-arch design. In a normal arch bridge design, the weight of the deck and traffic, whether pushing down on the arch from above or pulling down on it when suspended below, will naturally cause the arch to want to flatten out. These sideways forces have to be transferred into huge abutments, and preferably, ultimately, into solid ground.

With a tied-arch design the arch is prevented from flattening out because its two ends are 'tied' together, by a structural member in tension - usually but not necessarily the deck itself. The members in compression and tension balance each other out, resulting in net zero horizontal forces. So the bridge merely sits on top of its abutments with simple vertical forces from gravity, no sideways bracing required.

This is what enabled it to be simply picked up and floated to a new location, and also what gives it such a clean, elegant, curving, and alright, admittedly banana-shaped profile to this day.

The one fly in the ointment is the mismatched heights of the opposing banks, resulting in several flights of steps at each end. This is obviously not just an aesthetic quibble but a functional problem too; the steps do have these rail thingies for bikes, but that's no use for wheelchairs. But I'll come back to that shortly.

First, I should probably point out that despite the ubiquity of the 'Banana Bridge' name, it's officially called the Langton Street footbridge. Those of you with a modern map and keen observational powers may find this puzzling, as there is no trace of a Langton Street in the vicinity.

Those of you visiting in the flesh, able to combine those keen observational powers with a modicum of general knowledge when it comes to British town planning and history, will probably be able to guess what's going on here. The built environment to the north of the bridge looks awfully... 60s, doesn't it? The Redcliffe estate very much epitomises the planning ethos of so many post-war, large-scale council housing schemes, with a series of tower blocks and slab blocks scattered at jaunty angles amongst generous green space.

And yes, sure enough, the story is exactly what those of you with a historic map or keen deductive powers would have already realised: there did used to be a Langton Street here, aligning perfectly with the footbridge and St Luke's Road beyond, and leading directly up to St Mary Redcliffe in the other direction. It used to be lined with classic terraced houses.

But sadly, Redcliffe was extensively bombed in the Bristol Blitz during World War 2, which gave 60s planners the impetus to sweep the whole lot away and deliver the cityscape we see today.

Now, I'm not going to get into a general purpose diatribe about '60s architecture and urban planning, because this is meant to be a bridge video, but one thing about this era's masterplanners that I can never understand is their seemingly dogged refusal to plug their new street layouts into the surrounding street layouts. It's strange enough to deliberately create disjointed little islands of council estate even when those islands sit in a sea of pre-war suburbia, but in a context like this, where the footbridge is not merely the preferred, habitual or traditional desire line route to the south, but literally the only physically possible route to the south, for anybody without a jetpack or a canoe... the mind boggles why you wouldn't have your street lining up with it.

As this 1920s aerial photo shows, the southern end of the bridge originally served exactly the same type of urbanity: terraced houses, mostly Victorian although the oldest along the New Cut go back to the Georgian era.

This area, too, was bombed in the second World War, and likewise the post-war planners decided to sweep it all away and start again. If we're honest, the bomb damage was fairly minimal, not really enough to justify razing this neighbourhood, but with talk of 'slum quality' housing it was razed nonetheless. Here the planners decided to re-dedicate the area to light industry, rather than social housing.

It's been a nondescript mix of warehouses and workshops ever since, but the current housing crisis has created the economic and political conditions for yet another radical reshaping. The masterplanners are back on the case. The former Bart's Spices factory has already been demolished, and planning approval gained for blocks of flats that look... well, pretty much exactly like you'd expect them to look.

In the same spirit as my last video about the 'Western Harbour' area, I decided to film the Mead Street and Whitehouse Street industrial estates as they are now, as a sort of time capsule before it was all swept away, and I duly wrote 40 minutes of waffle about regeneration and urbanism, and all that . But on the basis that nobody would actually ever want to watch 40 minutes of nondescript industrial estate, I ended up binning it.

So, I've cunningly snuck some of the footage in here, but I'll not get too waylaid by the wider regeneration. I mention it mostly to point out that it represents a grand opportunity for the Banana Bridge. Remember earlier I pointed out that the bridge is inaccessible for cyclists, wheelchairs, prams, and so on? Fortunately, there's this thing called section 106 which means the council can claim great lumps of money from property developers as a condition of planning permission to improve local infrastructure - funding towards new schools, libraries, extensions to the existing tram system that, as a city of half a million, it obviously already has - things like that. And sure enough the developer's PR material makes vaguely aspirational promises of improving cycle connectivity.

So I remarked online that such a huge residential-led regeneration of the entire Mead St and Whitehouse Lane area would surely be more than enough to pay for some accessibility work on the Banana Bridge.

It turns out that I was rather late to this idea - back in 2014 the council got hold of several million quid from the government's Cycle City Ambition Fund. Enough money to investigate how to add ramps to the banana bridge - and get told by English Heritage that it was impossible without unnacceptably bespoiling its grade-II listed heritage features. But enough money still to instead work up a full proposal for a new, accessible bridge to be added slightly upstream.

It was not enough money to actually build it, though, so the proposal was withdrawn, along with another scheme for new cycle bridge between Vauxhall and Gaol Ferry Bridges. The quote-unquote 'spiralling costs' involved being, erm, 7 million. You know, the sort of money that an average criminal landlord could probably drop on even an entry-level superyacht, or that the average multinational probably tax-evades every 17 seconds or something.

Depressingly, it seems that despite the umpty million quid soon to be invested in the Mead Street, Whitehouse Street and Bedminster Green masterplans, there is no sign of these plans being revived; no intention to either retrofit the Banana Bridge for accessibility or build a new one nearby. Honestly, I think it's indefensible. But, the worst part is, building a squillion new homes and not even pretending to deliver a corresponding uplift in transport connectivity, is not even the worst part.

The worst part is the current bridge sits amidst visibly crumbling retaining walls; Bristol City Council's own report declared that these present the very real risk of collapsing, taking the bridge with it and with corresponding risk to life, if not repaired within the next five years. That report was a couple of years ago. At the time of writing, they've nearly finished Gaol Ferry, next is Sparke Evans Park, and they'll get to the Banana Bridge after that. Might be cutting it a bit fine to their own five year threshold? And all for the sake of a couple of million quid in the budget. Barely even a yacht, let alone a superyacht.

Call me a dangerously radical far-left extremist, but I do occasionally wonder if just maybe there's any tiny conceivable way in which society as a whole could possibly arrange taxation and public spending so as to ensure that the plebs can cross a bridge to get into town without risking death, or indeed, go to school without it falling on their head, and only after that bare minimum of non-death-risking infrastructure has been met do we allow people to accumulate enough to crack open the yacht catalogues.

But alas... I set out to just make a pleasant, uncontroversial summary of a nice yellow footbridge, and instead I seem to be heading off on a massive political rant. So, time to hastily wrap it up I think.

By the way, if anyone is wondering why I've gone from a video every fortnight to one every several months, I could blame the wet summer and the incessant train strikes for ruining most of my chances to get out and film things, but to be honest, even besides those factors I just haven't really been in the mood. So, that's all for this video, and I don't know when the next one will be, but... one of these days. Cheers.