Once it crossed the River Mersey, but now it has gone

WIDNES IN CHESHIRE is across the River Mersey from the town of Runcorn. In the past, both places were important industrial centres. Currently, they are linked by two impressive road bridges (the Mersey Gateway, opened in 2017; and the Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1961 and given its present name in 1977) and a Victorian railway viaduct. The Silver Jubilee Bridge (‘SJB’) begins cross in the Mersey from Widnes near to St Mary’s church and the Victoria Gardens.

A few feet downstream from the SJB, there is what looks like a short jetty projecting a little way over the Mersey. On one side of this, there a small building with two separate slate roofs. The wide jetty-like structure looks disused. And so, it is. The structure is all that remains on the Widnes riverbank of the Widnes–Runcorn Transporter Bridge. Until 1905, when it was constructed, the only bridge across the Mersey at Widnes was the railway bridge (variously named as The Runcorn Railway Bridge, Ethelfleda Bridge, and Britannia Bridge), which was opened in 1868.

Between 1901 and 1905, when it was opened, the transporter bridge was under construction. It was the first of its kind in Britain. At each end of the bridge there was a 180 feet high steel tower. Suspended from them and spanning the length between them was a 1000-foot-long girder along which ran a continuous loop of cable. A transporter car was attached to the cable. The loop of cable was wound around a wheel attached to a winch on an engine housed in a building: the one which can be seen on the jetty-like structure at Widnes. As the wheel rotated, the cable moved, and the car attached to it moved across the river and high above it. The crossing took about 2 ½ minutes in favourable weather.

When it was built, the transporter bridge was cheaper to construct than a conventional bridge such as the one that replaced it in 1961 (i.e., the SJB). The transporter bridge, which was deemed inadequate for modern traffic volumes, was closed on the day that the SJB was opened, and it was demolished soon after. All that remains in Widnes is what can be seen at the end of Mersey Road next to the start of the SJB and Victoria Gardens. Although we did not visit Runcorn, I have read that the approach to the transporter bridge can be seen on that side of the river.

When we came across the remains of the transporter bridge, we had no idea what we were looking at. We asked several young people nearby, and they were unsure of its purpose. Older people whom we met in the nearby friendly pub (The Mersey), whose garden provides not only a pleasant place to drink but also a fine view of the SJB and the railway viaduct, were able to inform us about the bridge which is no more.

War and peacefulness

THE CRANE IS a tributary of the River Thames. Named after Cranford (Middlesex) through which it flows it is about 8 ½ miles in length. It rises as Yeading Brook and flows towards its mouth at Isleworth, just opposite the southern tip if Isleworth Ait. On its way, the Crane passes east of Heathrow Airport, Hounslow Heath, Whitton, Twickenham, and St Margarets. It also feeds the man-made Duke of Northumberland’s River, which enters the Thames about 610 yards downstream from the mouth of the Crane.

The shot tower at Crane Park

The Crane flows through beautiful, wooded parkland known as Crane Park. This incredibly peaceful open space, part of which is a nature reserve, is in Whitton near Twickenham. Part of the park is in the Borough of Richmond-on-Thames and the rest in the Borough of Hounslow. The Crane, which contains a wooded island and breaks up into rivulets occasionally, is bordered on both sides by the park. The island, Crane Park Island, now a lovely nature reserve, a peaceful oasis in a busy part of London, was created for a purpose that was far from peaceful: warfare.

In the 1760s, a gunpowder works was established in what is now the west part of Crane Park. The island was created to form a millstream for operating a waterwheel connected to a mill for grinding saltpetre (nitrates of either sodium, potassium, or calcium) used to make gunpowder. It was part of a complex of buildings that housed the Hounslow Powder Mills. Before the 19th century, what is now Crane Park would have been part of the then much vaster Hounslow Heath. The website of the Twickenham Museum noted that gunpowder mills were established on the Heath as early as during the reign of King Henry VIII.  

All that remains of the Hounslow Powder Mills is a tall brick tower topped with a lead roof and a small lantern with a weathervane. It resembles a lighthouse. This was built either late in the 18th century or early in the 19th. Lying near it are a couple of circular millstones, which might have been used for grinding gunpowder. Described by some as a shot tower, it might have been used to manufacture lead shot. Molten lead would have been poured through a copper mesh near the top of the tower, and as it fell downwards, it formed into droplets, which when cooled became pellets of lead shot. This is most likely, but others suggest that the tower was part of a windmill.

Manufacturing gunpowder was a hazardous procedure, and unintended explosions were not unusual. The Twickenham Museum’s website related:

“Joseph Farington noted in his diary on Monday 25 January 1796 that: “The Powder Mills at Hounslow were blown yesterday. The concussion was so great as to break the windows in the town of Hounslow. Hoppner having been to Eaton, on his return rode to the spot where the Mills had stood, not a fragment of them remained. They were scattered over the country in small pieces. Three men were killed”… Burial records note deaths from further explosions: 5 on 17 November, 1 on 19 June 1798, 7 0n 15 July 1799, 2 on 27 June 1801, and so on through the century. Abraham Slade noted in his diary for 1859 that: “On the 29 of March the Powder Mills blew up, sending 7 poor souls into eternity in a moment. It has broken a great deal of glass in Twickenham & neighbourhood. We thought the whole place was coming down.””

The last major explosion at the Hounslow Mill was in 1915.

The powder mills passed through the hands of various operating companies: Edmund Hill, John Butts and Harvey and Grueber until 1820, then Curtis and Harvey until 1920, and then by Nobel Industries.The licence for producing explosives at Hounslow Powder Mill was revoked in 1927. In 1927, a Twickenham councillor, Frank Yates, bought the site. Later, he sold part of it for housing and the rest to Twickenham Council, who used it to create what is now Crane Park.

In addition to the impressive tower and a rusting sluice gate, several other less impressive remnants of the manufacturing complex can be seen on the island in the form of the bases of engine housings: lumps of bricks and concrete with thick metal rods protruding from them. Apart from the tower and a few other barely identifiable remnants, it is hard to believe that the sylvan and peaceful Crane Park was ever a place where the material of warfare had been produced for several centuries.

A bridge in London waiting for repairs

In the middle years of the 1720s, Daniel Defoe described Hammersmith as a village that was growing into a small town:

“… and some talk also of building a fine stone bridge over the Thames …”

It was almost 100 years after Defoe speculated that a bridge across the Thames would be built at Hammersmith. A suspension bridge was constructed between 1824 and 1827. It was the first of this type of bridge to be constructed anywhere near London and the first to span the Thames. James Thorne, writing in 1876, that in outline and simplicity of style, it:

“… remains the best-looking-bridge of its kind on the Thames …”

The bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), who had been guided in his development of bridge construction techniques by Thomas Telford and John Rennie, who designed the old London Bridge that now stands in Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Clark also designed the suspension bridge (1832) across the Thames at Marlow and the impressive Széchenyi (Chain) Bridge which crosses the River Danube to link Buda and Pest. The latter resembles Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge as depicted in old engravings.

In 1883-37, Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge was replaced by a newer one designed by Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891). According to Cherry and Pevsner in The Buildings of England. London 2: South, Bazalgette:

“… re-used the piers and abutments. Iron-framed towers clad in cast iron partly gilt, with Frenchy pavilion tops, and elephantine ornament at the approaches … The deck stiffening girders were replaced in a major overhaul in 1973-6.”

This bridge, which was built for use by horses and carts, pedestrians, and the occasional cyclist, long before the advent of heavy motor vehicles such as busses and lorries. It has been closed for repairs several times, causing much nuisance for those who live on both sides of it. In April 2019, Hammersmith and Fulham Council closed the bridge to all motorised traffic. This was done following the discovery of serious cracks in the pedestals that support the bridge. It remained open for pedestrians and cyclists until August 2020, when a heatwave caused further deterioration. Then, the bridge was closed to all users.  

A variety of schemes have been proposed for repairing the bridge and there was some disagreement as to who would pay for the work. In June 2021, Hammersmith and Fulham Council came to a cost-sharing deal to complete the rehabilitation of the Victorian bridge. In July 2021, the bridge was reopened for use by cyclists and pedestrians until 2027. In February 2022, I stepped on the bridge for the first time since it closed. The view from it is marvellous, especially upstream where one gets a good view of the historic buildings lining the waterfront between Hammersmith and Chiswick.

Praying above the flowing water

ALMOST OPPOSITE THE modern and magnificent Hepworth Wakefield art gallery, completed in 2011, there is a nine arched bridge, built between 1342 and 1356, crossing the River Calder. Midway across the bridge, there is a small gothic chapel. It is the oldest one of only four surviving bridge chapels in England. Between the mid-14th century, when it was built and the Reformation in the 16th century, the Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin served as a place of worship for travellers crossing the bridge on their way from Wakefield to Leeds.

The purpose of a chantry chapel was:

“…to provide for a priest to say mass for the souls of the dead to reduce their time in purgatory.” (www.wakefieldcathedral.org.uk/visit-us/the-chantry/a-history-of-the-chantry-chapel)

Two acts passed during the reigns of King Henry VIII and his successor the young and fanatically Protestant Edward VI resulted in the closure of the well over 2300 chantry chapels in their kingdom. The chapel on the bridge at Wakefield was one of them. Whereas many chantry chapels were demolished or otherwise rendered unrecognizable, that on the bridge at Wakefield survived because it is an integral part of the structure of the bridge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chantry_Chapel_of_St_Mary_the_Virgin,_Wakefield).

The former chapel on the bridge was used for various purposes between 1547, when its religious use was terminated, and 1842, when it was restored. It was used at different times to house a warehouse, a library, an office, and a cheese shop.

In 1842, the formerly Roman Catholic chapel was transferred to the Church of England and it was restored by the Yorkshire Architectural Society, which was influenced in its philosophy by the Oxford Movement, a group of High Church members of the Church of England who wanted to reinstate older Christian traditions, which had been abolished during the Reformation, and incorporate them into Anglican theological practice. The architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was involved in the restoration of the edifice.  By 1848, the bridge on the chapel was once again being used as a place of worship. For a while it became a parish church, and then after a new parish church was built in 1854, it became used for occasional rather than regular services, and peopled prayed whilst water flowed below them.

Currently, the chapel is under the care of the Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel, which was founded in 1991. The chapel is usually kept closed but is opened on certain days (see: www.chantrychapelwakefield.org/open-days.html). As luck would have it, we walked across the bridge on a sunny day that the chapel was open. The small chapel is on two floors. The upper chapel is well-lit both by electric lamps and light flooding through its five sets of stained-glass windows. A narrow spiral staircase leads down to a lower, poorly lit, rather dusty chamber, somewhat devoid of interest.

The decorative ancient gothic chapel on the bridge makes an interesting contrast to the elegant but puritanically unadorned exterior of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery almost opposite it. Both buildings are definitely well worth exploring.  

A bridge in suspense

MY WIFE WAS studying to become a chartered accountant in the mid-1970s. As a trainee, she was required to carry out audits for her company in many parts of the UK. One of these was the building site where the Humber Bridge, which crosses the River Humber and links north Lincolnshire with the East Riding of Yorkshire. The bridge has a long span suspended between two tall concrete towers. When my (then future) wife arrived to audit the accounts of the entity involved in the construction, the towers had already been erected but there was no span for carrying the roadway across the river. A precarious looking cradle, attached to cables suspended between the towers, was used to cross the river. Some of the construction workers used it to traverse the Humber.

Being a keen and extremely assiduous trainee accountant, my wife wanted to inspect the construction site in considerable detail. Respecting her desire to examine the site properly, the managers on the site ensured that this happened. After carrying out the audit, she returned to London satisfied and has always held a special affection for the then yet to be completed bridge.

It was only a few years after my wife qualified as a chartered accountant that the bridge was eventually opened for use in mid-1981. The bridge is 1.38 miles in length and is currently the world’s eleventh longest bridge of this design (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humber_Bridge). A small toll is payable to cross it, which is what we did while travelling from Yorkshire to Lincolnshire in September 2021. After driving across the elegant, impressive bridge, we drove through the small town of Barton-upon-Humber to reach a bridge viewing park. There, my wife and I enjoyed snacks whilst gazing at the bridge for which she still harbours a soft spot. There is no accounting for taste!

At the end of the runway at Heathrow Airport

TODAY THE MAIN roads leading from London west, the A4 and the M4, run more or less parallel from Hammersmith west towards Slough and then beyond. Before these roads were modernised, or in the case of the M4 and, existed, the old road from London to Slough and points further west ran through the village of Colnbrook, and onwards to Bath. This was long before London’s Heathrow Airport came into existence. Today, the centre of Colnbrook, bypassed by both the A4 and the M4, lies 1.2 miles west of the western perimeter of the airport. Aeroplanes coming into land fly low over Colnbrook because they are within a minute or two of touching down on the runways. Despite being sandwiched between the airport and the ever-expanding town of Slough and having some new housing, Colnbrook retains many features of a rural English village.

With a bridge crossing the River Colne, a tributary of the Thames, Colnbrook was an important staging post on the coach road between London and the west. An old milestone near The Ostrich pub marks the halfway point between Hounslow (west London) and Maidenhead. A modern sign next to it informs that the toll-road through the village was known as the Colnbrook Turnpike. Writing in 1876, James Thorne noted that during the coaching era, Colnbrook:

“… retained something of its ancient noise and stir; it is now a dull, sleepy, roadside village of a long main street and 2 or 3 shabby offshoots, the many inns testifying to its old character.”

No doubt, the advent of the railways put pay to much of the traffic through the village. It is still rather sleepy if you disregard the ‘planes passing overhead every few minutes. But it is not shabby in my opinion. It has maintained a certain rustic charm and a few of its inns or pubs. Many other buildings in the place have tall archways that might well have led into coaching yards of former hostelries.

A well-restored brick and stone bridge crosses one of the streams of the River Colne. The stonework that lines the tops of the walls of the crossing have carved lettering that shows that the centre of the span was the boundary between Middlesex and Buckinghamshire and that the bridge was built in 1777. A large building with an archway that would have admitted stagecoaches at the eastern entrance to Colnbrook bears the name ‘White Hart House’. When Thorne was writing about the village in 1876, he noted that this was an inn:

“… a good house, with bowling green, and grounds, much in favour for trade dinners and pleasure parties…”

The George Inn, unlike the White Hart, is still in business. It is said that Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I, might have spent a night there when being taken as a prisoner from Woodstock to Hampton Court in 1588. The pub was first established in the reign of Henry VIII. Its present façade is 18th century (www.sloughhistoryonline.org.uk). Other royal visitors to Colnbrook included the Black Prince with his prisoner King John of France, who were met here by King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377).   The half-timbered Ostrich Inn, almost opposite the George, is far older and has a less salubrious history. Its foundations were laid in 1106 but much of its present construction is 16th century. Its name, the Ostrich, might well be a corruption of an earlier name, ‘the Hospice’.

During the 17th century, the Ostrich had an extremely dodgy landlord called Jarman. The pub’s website (https://ostrichcolnbrook.co.uk/history.html) describes his activities well. Here are some extracts from it. Jarman:

“…with his wife made a very profitable sideline by murdering their guests after they had retired for the night.

They had a trap door built into the floor of one of their bedrooms and when a suitably rich candidate arrived Jarman would inform his wife that a fat pig was available if she wanted one! She would reply by asking her husband to put him in the sty for till the morrow. The bedstead was hinged and they would tip the sleeping victim into a vat of boiling liquid immediately below, thus killing him.”

All went well for the Jarmans until they chose a clothier from Reading, named Thomas Cole:

“After persuading him to make his will before he retired, Jarman killed Cole. Unfortunately Cole’s horse was found wandering the streets nearby and caused a search for his owner who had been last seen entering The Ostrich! His body was found some time later in a nearby brook and some say that this Cole-in-the-brook is how Colnbrook got its name. It’s a nice story but whether it is true or not, who’s to say!”

You might be interested to learn that the Ostrich still offers rooms for guests to stay overnight. We met four men, who had done so, sitting quite contentedly in the morning sun that was flooding into the pub’s pleasant courtyard. Despite the story of Thomas Cole, it is far mor likely that the village was originally called ‘Colebroc’ (in 1107) and later ‘Colebrok’ (by 1222).

We visited the parish church of St Thomas just as guest were arriving at a christening. We were given a warm welcome by a female cleric dressed in white with a colourful stole, which she told us that she was wearing at such a happy occasion. The church, a Victorian gothic edifice, was designed by an architect who specialised in Gothic Revival, Benjamin Ferrey (1810-1880). Built between 1849 and 1852, it has walls containing flints. A north aisle, designed by a great practitioner of the Gothic Revival style, George Edmund Street (1824-1881), was added to the church in 1862.

Streams of the River Colne run through parts of the village. In some places their banks are lined with old houses, some half-timbered. Colnbrook, over which millions of people have flown since Heathrow was opened as Great west Aerodrome in 1929 and then as a much larger establishment, now known as London Heathrow, since 1946, is visited by few except mainly locals. Bypassed by major roads and not on the railway, the village has a picturesqueness that rivals many much more frequented places deep in the English countryside. Yet, Colnbrook is a short bus ride from Slough’s railway station and about 40 to 50 minutes’ drive from Hyde Park Corner. Visit the place and be surprised by its charm.

Riding high above London

DOLLIS BROOK IS one of the two main tributaries of the River Brent, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames, which it enters at Brentford. Dollis Brook rises near the A1 dual-carriageway at Mote End Farm and then flows southwards towards Brent Park, where it is joined by another stream, Mutton Brook. Both brooks are lined with pleasant green spaces containing footpaths that follow the streams. Thus, they are lovely green corridors providing much-needed rustic relief from the relentless built-up suburbia through which the streams flow.

Nether Street is road running west and downhill from Finchley Central Underground Station. After reaching a small roundabout, it continues as Dollis Road. The latter descends ever more steeply until it runs under a tall brick arch, part of the Dollis Brook Viaduct (also known as ‘The Mill Hill Viaduct’). The road runs beside a stretch of Dollis Brook, which at that location is only a few feet in width – rather a miserable little stream. However, the viaduct with its 13 arches, each with spans of 32 feet, traverses a veritable steep sided gorge, maybe created over time by the waters flowing in the humble Dollis Brook, or, more likely, by glacial drift (“Nature”, 9th of November 1871: http://www.nature.com/articles/005027c0.pdf). This amazing viaduct, a masterpiece of brickwork, carries Underground trains on a spur of the Northern Line running between Finchley Central and Mill Hill East stations.

Designed by John Fowler (1817-1898) and Walter Marr Brydone, who was Engineer-in-Chief for the Great Northern Railway (‘GNR’) from 1855-1861, the viaduct was constructed between 1863 and 1867, when the first train ran across it. The line that now carries Northern Line trains over the viaduct was originally built by the GNR, as was the viaduct. As trains traverse the viaduct, they are at one point 60 feet above the ground. This point must be close to where both Dollis Road and Dollis Brook pass beneath the arches,

We have often driven beneath the viaduct, but it was only in August 2021 that we decided to park near it and examine it as closely as we could. We had recently visited the impressive granite railway viaduct near Luxulyan in deepest Cornwall and been amazed by its grandeur. We had not expected to find a bridge in north London that is almost as awe-inspiring.  As I gazed upwards at its tall arches, I admired the Victorian bricklayers, who must have had to work at ever-increasingly dizzying heights as they constructed it. The viaduct is certainly a sight worth seeing, and whilst you are in the area, much pleasure can be gained by taking a stroll along the paths that run close to Dollis Brook.

Gone for a barton in Bruton

BRUTON IN SOMERSET lies along the River Brue. Most of the old town is high above the river on its steep banks. Narrow passageways run along the steep slopes, connecting the High Street with the riverbank below. These steep passageways in Bruton are called Bartons. The word ‘barton’ means ‘farmyard’ in Old English. However, why these passages are called ‘bartons’ in Burton is a bit of a mystery despite the fact that there used to be farmsteads close to the town.

The most southern city in England

AN HOUR IN TRURO is hardly enough to get to know the county town of Cornwall well, but it is long enough to discover that the city’s centre is attractive and interesting. In 1876 the Diocese of Truro was founded and in the following year, it gained the status of ‘city’, making it the southernmost city in mainland Britain. Until the diocese was established, the county of Cornwall including the Scilly Isles and a couple of parishes in Devon were in the Diocese of Exeter. Given that the Christian faith was well established in this southwestern part of England at least 100 years before the first Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed, it was high time that Cornwall had its own diocese and archbishop.

Truro Cathedral

Between 1880 and 1910, a gothic revival cathedral designed by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) was constructed on the site of the 15th century parish church of St Mary. Parts of this old church were incorporated into the new cathedral and the top of its granite spire stands in a garden next to it. One of only three British cathedrals with three spires, Truro’s cathedral was the first new cathedral to be built in England after many centuries. Although a relatively recent structure compared with many of Britain’s other cathedrals, it is a fitting design for the mediaeval heart of the city with its narrow winding streets.

The name Truro might be derived from the Cornish words meaning ‘three rivers’ or ‘the settlement on the River Uro’. In any case, Truro has a river running through it, which helped stimulate the growth of the city’s prosperity. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the tin mining industry added to Truro’s wealth. Lemon Street, where we parked, is evidence of that; it looks like a Georgian street in Bath or some parts of London. The arrival of a direct railway line between the city and London in the 1860s provided a further boost to the city’s success. Earlier in mediaeval towns, Truro, which is inland and therefore difficult to reach by seaborne foreign invaders, became an important port. In addition, it was a stannary town, where revenue from the tin industry was collected, yet another source of the town’s wealth.

Our brief first visit to Truro (at the end of a long day out) has whetted my appetite for another lengthier exploration of the city, which at first sight seems to have many interesting features to excite tourists who have an interest in history.