Magazine article Geographical

Building Bridges: From Simple Stone Spans to Complex Constructions of Iron and Concrete, Britain's Abundance of Bridges Offers Endless Opportunities for Photographic Creativity

Magazine article Geographical

Building Bridges: From Simple Stone Spans to Complex Constructions of Iron and Concrete, Britain's Abundance of Bridges Offers Endless Opportunities for Photographic Creativity

Article excerpt


Wherever you travel in the UK along the coast or inland. by road or rail, even on foot, you're never far from a bridge. Some dominate the immediate vicinity, spanning a broad expanse of water or an upland valley in spectacular style; others are more mundane and diminutive, simply laid out to keep your feet from getting wet. Throughout history, bridges have been built to exemplify the engineering prowess of a civilisation, many enduring longer than the empires that built them.

Our oldest surviving bridges are simple affairs: the Tarr Steps across the River Barle in Devon is a well-known example of a clapper bridge, dating possibly from the Bronze Age and consisting of large pieces of fiat stone raised above the river's surface to enable a dry foot crossing. More visible are the stone-arched packhorse bridges, which spanned waterways on the main transport routes of medieval Britain. Hundreds of years later, some of these bridges have become popular photographic subjects in their own right: Ashness Bridge in the Lake District is rarely without a photographer in its vicinity trying to make a composition of the simple span that leads the eye into the background of England's most photographed mountain landscape.

These quaint old structures have become as much a part of Britain's landscape as the mountain streams and valleys they occupy.


Most of Britain's bridges that date from the 18th and 19th centuries are inspired by the classical styles of multi-arched stone viaducts and aqueducts of Ancient Rome. One much-photographed Victorian interpretation is the Ribblehead Viaduct in North Yorkshire. Standing more than 30 metres high, the 24 stone arches form a span of more than 400 metres across the Ribble Valley. Since its completion in 1874. the sight of steam trains running along the viaduct has been a popular subject for steam enthusiasts, as well as walkers scaling nearby Whernside and landscape photographers trying to create an impression of a timeless landscape in black and white.

Older still is the Palladian-style Pulteney Bridge across the River Avon at Bath. Built by Robert Adam in 1774, this bridge is lined with closed shops in a similar style to Rome's older (and longer) Ponte Vecchio. On a more ornamental scale, the famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice has faithful copies in both Cambridge and Oxford, which are easily accessible to photographers.

The abundance of postcards featuring these classic bridges is a measure of their popularity with the public, but have greater value to the visiting photographer by providing some added insight about composition, lighting and vantage points.



As attractive as these bridges are to the tourist's camera, it's the metal structures borne out of the smelters and furnaces of the Industrial Revolution that provide the most dramatic (and challenging) subjects for the camera. The onset of the Industrial Revolution led to a radical departure from the dependence on stone and brick for major construction projects. In Shropshire, the Severn Gorge was breached by the construction of the world's first arched bridge made out of cast iron, produced from a nearby blast furnace. When completed in 1779, the single-span Iron Bridge proved so popular with Georgian visitors that it gave its name to the settlement that grew up beside it. Ever since the invention of the camera, Iron Bridge's semi-circular arch has been carefully composed with a mirror image reflecting off the surface of the River Severn, creating a picture of a perfect metal circle in the frame.

Since the construction of Iron Bridge, new designs using new techniques and materials have enabled bridges to span greater distances to meet the ambitions of Britain's expanding rail and road network. Multi-span bridges and suspension bridges began to appear in the first half of the 19th century. …

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