Crossing the Menai Strait

Following how crossing the Menai Straits have changed over the years

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Before building the bridges

 For centuries, travelling to Anglesey from Wales mainland was very dangerous. The tide coming from two directions creates strong currents and whirlpools which can easily sink small boats, and there are also four tides every day. Drovers would swim animals along the Menai when the tide was out. At low tide, there is only 18 inches of water in places, but its very difficult to walk across the sandbanks.

Several ferries used to cross the Menai in different places, but they would often capsize, or sink, and lives were frequently lost. The worst case was in 1785, when a boat carrying 55 people went aground on a sandbank on the south side of the Menai Strait. As they tried to release the boat, it began to fill with water. Rescuers in Caernarfon heard of the crisis, but with the strong wind and the night closing in, and the danger of itself running aground, the lifeboat did not manage to reach the stricken boat. Only one person survived.

When Ireland was joined with Great Britain in the Acts of Union in 1800, there was a great increase in the numbers that wished to cross the strait to travel to Holyhead and then on to Dublin. The road between London and Holyhead became very important, as it was the connection between Ireland and the Parliament in London. The journey from London to Holyhead took 36 hours; when Menai Bridge opened in 1826 the journey time reduced to 27 hours! By today, using motorways, modern cars and Menai Bridge the journey can be completed in less than seven hours!

Menai Suspension Bridge

As traffic from London to Holyhead increased by 1819, the civil engineer, Thomas Telford, was chosen to build a bridge across the Menai Strait. One essential thing in the plans was to have clearance of a hundred feet below the bridge, to allow tall sailing ships, very popular on the Menai, to sail underneath unhindered. It was decided that a suspension bridge was the only way to achieve this, with sixteen chains supporting a 579 foot road between two towers.

Although ferry owners objected, work began on the bridge in 1819. Stone from Penmon Quarry, on the north side of the Menai, was used for the arches, and it arrived on site by boat. The ironwork came from Hazeldean foundry near Shrewsbury and to prevent the iron from rusting it was greased with warm linseed oil. The stonework was completed in 1824, and then began the enormous task of lifting the chains which would hold the bridge in place, and anchor them in the rocks at either side.

The first chain to be secured was the one on the Caernarfon side, and the chain was left to hang from the tower to the water. The same thing was done on the Anglesey side. Then the central chain, which weighed 23.5 tons, was loaded onto a raft, and moved carefully between the two towers and connected to the two hanging chains. With the help of a pulley system and ropes, 150 men pulled the chain to the top of the tower on the Anglesey side. A crowd had gathered to watch, along with a drum and whistle band that was there to encourage the workers! Over the next ten weeks the rest of the chains were lifted in the same way.

The bridge was officially opened on the 30thof January 1826. Over the years the bridge has been changed quite a bit. For example, after strong wind in 1839, they had to re-do the road itself. A steel road replaced the original wood road in 1893. As modern vehicles became more common, the maximum weight of 4.5 tonnes, started to become a burden, with service buses having to ask it's passengers to walk across the bridge! Between 1938 and 1940, iron chains replaced the original steel chains and in 1999 the bridge was closed for a few weeks to replace the road and strengthen the bridge. 

Britannia tubular bridge

The popularity or rail travel increased in the 19th century, and it became obvious that trains needed to cross the Menai Strait. As the planning of a railway to Holyhead began, there was a suggestion that a railway should cross the present bridge. The carriages would have to be uncoupled on one side of the bridge, and be pulled, one at a time, by a horse across the bridge, and recoupled to another train on the other side. This idea was put to one side, and Robert Stephenson, the son of the railway pioneer George Stephenson, got the chance to build a new bridge with the help of William Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson.

Like the previous bridge, it had to have 100 feet of clearance underneath to allow for the sails of tall ships, but it also had to be strong enough to hold rails and the weight of a train and several carriages. Even today such a project would be difficult.

It was decided to build a tubular bridge, a revolutionary idea at the time. There would be two iron tubes, each 472 feet long, one for each of the train lines. Originally it was believed a chain would be needed to support the bridge, similar to a suspension bridge, but after having experimented it was decided the bridge would be strong enough without.

Britannia Bridge's foundation stone was laid on 10 April 1846, and once again stone from Penmon Quarry was used. The tubes were built on the bank of the Menai, before being installed. It was more of a challenge for Stephenson to lift them into place as they weighed 1,500 tons each, quite a bit more than the Menai Bridge chains. The first tube was almost blown out to sea! But as luck would have it, it arrived safely. They were lifted slowly using a hydraulic pump, with the stonwork built under the sides of the tubes as they were lifted, in case the lifting system failed. One of the pumps failed on one occasion, and a tube dropped nine inches!

With the iron tubes in place, four limestone lions were added to guard the entrances to the bridge. They were carved by John Thomas, who had carved items for Westminster and Buckingham Palace in London. The lions are nearly 4 metres tall, and sit on a plinth the same height. The bridge opened on 5 March 1850, while Stephenson was building a very similar bridge on the railway between Chester and Holyhead at Conway.

The Britannia Bridge fire and the rebuilding work

The image of Britannia Bridge in the last chapter is very different to what can be seen whilst crossing the Menai Strait today. This is because of the innocent adventure of a group of young boys.

A group of local boys went into one of the tubes during the night of 23 May 1970 to search for birds' nests. They were carrying a piece of burning paper as a lamp, and when the lit paper was dropped about 12 metres inside the bridge, the wood inside the tubular bridge caught fire. Strong wind and the tube's shape helped the fire spread along the bridge. The fire continued to burn for nine hours. The official report notes “ the result of a Nature Expedition that went wrong ...The main contribution to the destruction of the bridge was the design of the roof, and the high inflammability of the material in which it was made. The cavernous nature of the structure allowed fire to travel in all directions and made fire extinguishing impossible...”. The fire caused so much damage to the bridge there were worries that the tubes might drop into the river. The fire's heat had bent the tubes so much that the bridge was dangerous. The tubes had to be removed and leave only the original pillars. Two years passed before a train crossed the bridge once again.

There were big changes made to the bridge during the rebuilding work. New steel arches had to be added before removing the original tubes that had been destroyed by the fire, but a piece of the original tube has been kept near the present bridge on the Caernarfon side of the Menai Strait. As no tall ships now sail the Menai, the height of the bridge was no longer a problem. It was rebuilt with two floors, the lower floor carrying the railway, and the A55 running above. The rail line opened on 30 January 1972, but the road above did not open until 1980, ten years after the fire.

Between 1972 and 1978 the bridge looked unfinished. The train could cross, but the space above for the road had not been built on. Between 1978 and 1980, a one-lane road was built above, which was opened in 1980. The four lions are in the same place, but as the road is now above the railway, they cannot be seen from the A55, but if you were to travel on the train you would see them in their original positions.

With traffic increasing, there are discussions concerning upgrading the Britannia Bridge once again. In 2007 there were suggestions either to widen the bridge and make it a dual carriageway, or to build a new bridge alongside and send the traffic in different directions on each bridge. There has been no decision so far, so perhaps three bridges will cross the Menai in the future.

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