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When it comes to bridges I've been a bit of a fan and a nerd for as long as I can remember, so it was probably inevitable I would start an occasional series looking at Bristol’s bridges. The eponymous one, or the really famous one, would probably have been the obvious places to start, but instead I’ll kick off with Bristol’s other suspension bridges, starting here at Gaol Ferry Bridge which connects Wapping Wharf on Spike Island with the suburbs south of the New Cut, Bedminster and Southville. It was opened in 1935 at a cost of £2600, built to a design by David Rowell & Co, a London company, by John Lysaght, a local steel and iron firm founded in 1856.
Lysaght’s main ironworks in Bristol was here, St Vincent’s Works: by the 1880s he was employing 400 men and had expanded to Australia. This 1891 head office was built for him by his architect brother Thomas Lysaght, whose name you might remember if you watched my first ever video on Bristol Byzantine. Amongst many other things in many other places around the country, and indeed around the world, John Lysaght’s firm also built the Great Western Railway’s Bristol goods shed, and Vauxhall Bridge.
Back to Gaol Ferry Bridge though, which was supposed to be called Southville Bridge after the suburb it serves, but inevitably got named after the ferry it replaced. Actual photos of the ferry are hard to come by, at least without a licensing budget that I don’t have, but I have scraped together this - although the boat is mostly out of frame, you can clearly see the ramps down to the ferry, which just about survive to this day, although not in a state that would pass muster for modern health and safety concerns. You can also see how Coronation Road here used to be Coronation bridge, making the ferry accessible via a lane through to Acraman’s Road, which I can only assume is named after John Acraman, the Bristol shipbuilding big-shot who established the ferry in 1829. This link is now blocked up.
With this stretch of the New Cut seeing extremely variable levels and strong currents in both directions depending on the tide, it must have been a pretty skilled bunch of boatmen working the surprisingly small watercraft. Still, at the time it was replaced by the bridge, the ferry had been running continuously for over a century and was transporting some 10,000 people per month.
Funnily enough, just as the supposed Southville Bridge became Gaol Ferry Bridge, the Gaol Ferry itself was supposed to have been the Coronation Ferry. But instead locals named it after the Bristol New Gaol, which opened in 1820 on Spike Island, was destroyed by riots in 1831, rebuilt and eventually demolished in 1898, except for one stretch of wall and the gatehouse, which you can see here today.
Back to the Gaol Ferry Bridge though (!!), the book From Brygstow to Bristol in 45 Bridges describes these spires as echoing the tower of nearby St Paul’s Southville. I suspect this is complete coincidence, however, because David Rowell & Co designed numerous other similar bridges elsewhere in England, Wales, Ireland, even New Zealand and Patagonia, Chile, and of these, several of them share the pointy decorations, and are definitely nowhere near St Paul’s Southville.
As a self-declared bridge fan and purveyor of “ooh, isn’t that historic infrastructure pretty and interesting” type of youtube content, you might very well expect me to agree with the book’s description of this bridge as “lovely”.
Truth be told though, I don’t actually like it very much. To be clear, its existence is very much welcomed on a practical level - and more of that later. And visually speaking, I’ll admit, the lattice of metalwork has a certain period charm. So I don’t hate it. But I can’t muster much enthusiasm beyond that.
I think the problem is that it simply doesn’t embody my platonic ideal of a suspension bridge. Reduced to a few brushstrokes, the most graceful and perhaps the most important and defining line in a suspension bridge is the catenary curve of the main cables. Here, the handrail pokes above the bottom of that curve, ruining that line.
Next, I want to admire the deck flowing smoothly and seamlessly across the void, but in this case, we have these awkward down-sloping ramps between the piers of the bridge and the banks of the river. OK, I’m being harsh to criticise the bridge for this, because it has to handle the height difference between the two banks. It wouldn’t be much use if the deck was aesthetically-pleasingly level, only to stop dead, dangling 3 metres up in the air, at the Wapping Wharf side. But I am just talking about aesthetics here, and unfortunately, these ramps are displeasing.
Furthermore, a key part of the visual appeal of suspension bridges is their incredible lightness - their seemingly impossible ratio between volume of material used and distance spanned. Here, the busy grid of ironwork forming the side railings is rather heavy on the eye, not at all in the ‘slender ribbon’ category. It doesn’t seem impossible that this structure can span this gap - in fact, you almost feel a truss-like iron or steel structure of that size should almost be able to bridge the gap without the suspension cables. A sense which is rather reinforced if you’ve ever been half a mile downstream and seen the truss Vauxhall Bridge, which basically does just that.
So all of this is why, by the high standards of suspension bridges, I’m afraid I find Gaol Ferry Bridge to be a bit of an ugly duckling.
Enough history and aesthetics though; surely a bridge should above all be judged in practical terms. As I mentioned, I am of course extremely grateful for its existence, and its fundamental success in, well, bridging the river at this point. Taking that ferry would have been a right faff, and the detour on foot is a significant pain in the arse as well. More on that shortly…
However, if I am to judge brutally here, I think there is a case that this bridge is barely fit for purpose. Admittedly, most of my footage so far makes it look scarcely used, but that’s because most of it was shot around 7am on a Sunday morning, because I didn’t want to be in hundreds of people’s way.
At peak times, this is a critical pedestrian, cycle and scooter corridor between the city centre and the whole Southville, Bedminster southern suburban area, and the fact is, it’s not wide enough to accommodate this demand. The capacity here is easily filled by pedestrians alone. Cyclists and scooters could easily fill the same capacity again, but, instead we have this bottleneck. Officially they should dismount, and it might seem churlish to moan about having to dismount for such a short distance, but the entire essence of cycling as an efficient mode of transport is kind of about your rolling momentum, so I think it would be unwise to dismiss how badly things like this detract from a cyclist’s experience. In itself it might be a minor inconvenience, but once you stack umpteen locations like this along an x-mile route then suddenly a smooth and easy 10 minute cycle becomes a 20-30 minute exercise in frustration and pointlessness, and this does inhibit the modal share of sustainable, healthy transport choices in the long run and in the bigger picture.
In my opinion, if you had a magic wand you would want this bridge to be at least twice as wide, and that’s not even being ambitiously future-proof. That’s just giving the capacity to cope with today’s traffic without becoming a major choke-point, but we’re supposed to be encouraging an ever greater percentage of people towards walking and cycling. I really don’t see how this bridge’s current dimensions are compatible with that.
But hey, it could be worse, it could be closed completely, for the best part of a year.
Yes, in August 2022, this bridge closed for essential maintenance. At the time of publishing this video, it is closed, and is expected to remain closed for 6-9 months by official proclamations, or perhaps a year or more, by local cynicism.
At this point, this video originally had 5 or 6 minutes of me ranting about how annoying this is and how thoroughly detrimental it is to the wider principles of healthy urbanism, debating quotes from the Mayor about it, digging into council infrastructure funding documents, and so on and so on.
But I realised that probably nobody outside Bedminster will really care and once the bridge reopens, probably nobody even in Bedminster will care. It rather derailed what was otherwise a pleasant potted history of some nice vintage bridges. So maybe after the fact I’ll do a video about the refurbishment specifically, but for now I’m going to move swiftly on to the happier matter of Gaol Ferry Bridge’s elder sibling.
Sparke Evans Park bridge was completed in 1933, also to a design by David Rowell & Co and also built by John Lysaght. It's the prettier of the two, in my opinion. It probably helps that it crosses the (mostly) natural River Avon here, not the man-made New Cut. The bridge has a nice ‘magic’ quality as the deck emerges, floating, from the densely wooded riverbank, with the anchorages, towers and rather clumsy ramp hidden from view.
You might also note that here the main cables dip down to the handrail, not beneath it, ensuring the classic catenary curve is fully visible. Overall, it just feels to me slightly more graceful and elegant than its younger counterpart.
This bridge was built as part of various job-creation schemes from the council in that era, and today it does have a slight whiff of something built for the sake of creating jobs rather than because a bridge here is desperately needed. Sparke Evans Park bridge is, amazingly enough, named after Sparke Evans Park, which was in turn named after P.F. Sparke Evans, a local leather industrialist-turned-philanthropist who donated the land for it. His obituary in the Western Daily Press said he was “a gentleman who in a quiet way was given to many good works”. Although Sparke Evan’s tannery is long gone, this modest rectangle of green space still sits amidst an extensive sprawl of industrial urbanity: with the population of these warehouses, railway sidings, car parks and so on being essentially zero, neither the park nor the bridge are exactly overwhelmed with pedestrian traffic.
There is a pocket of traditional terraced housing across the bridge, recently joined by the rather extensive Paintworks regeneration, and for these residents the bridge undoubtedly provides a highly welcome connection to the park. It cannot, however, be realistically described as linking two dense and thriving neighbourhoods. And although, as the signage indicates, the riverside path on the other side continues on to the city centre, I think it's probably stretching it to say it serves a critical commuter axis.
In fact, much as I hate the clickbaity trend for describing everything even slightly less than famous as “hidden” or “secret”, this is the sort of bridge that, y’know, a lesser kind of youtuber might slap with that label. It has that vibe of being tucked away and something you might not realise existed unless you happened to live locally. Even from within the namesake park it’s strangely camouflaged. In this context, I find the slightly dorky appearance, underwhelming capacity and vintage aesthetic rather more charming than at Gaol Ferry Bridge.
Here at the Gaol Ferry non-Bridge in 2022, any charm derived from its rickety ninety-year-old nature is sadly soured by the painful reality of its closure; a reminder that not only is its 90-year old design inadequate for present or future demands, but that we have failed to even maintain that 90-year old baseline for what is considered an acceptable provision of sustainable transport connectivity, let alone improve on it. That’s... pathetic, isn’t it?
That’s a rather depressing note on which to end, but nevertheless end it there I shall. If for some strange reason you are hungry to hear more of me snarking and moaning about the suboptimal transport infrastructure of the immediate Wapping Wharf vicinity, you might enjoy my video on the regeneration of Spike Island, and the metro system which never materialised.
In the meantime, thanks for watching, thanks to everyone who’s work I built on in making this video, and if you liked it, why not subscribe in case I make any more. Cheers.