diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 12, 2023

The town of Richmond boasts four Thames bridges along a half mile stretch of river. This is dead useful for those planning a jogging or dogwalking loop, and particularly convenient because there are no other bridges for over two miles in either direction. Even English Heritage are impressed to the extent of listing the lot of them.
"The succession of bridges here is most significant with the engineering feats of three consecutive centuries represented, the C20 by Twickenham Bridge of 1933 by Maxwell Ayrton, the C19 by Richmond Railway Bridge and the Footbridge of 1891, and the C18 by the culmination of the sequence and the oldest Greater London river crossing, Richmond Bridge of 1777, by James Paine and Kenton Couse."
Richmond Bridge (1777)

If you wanted to cross the Thames hereabouts before the 18th century you had to use the ferry or else face a long detour to the bridge at Kingston or the ford at Brentford. A fixed crossing eventually became a necessity and Parliament aproved the building of a stone bridge to be paid for exclusively by tolls. Plans to construct it at the foot of Water Lane were thwarted when the landowner on the Twickenham side, the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle, refused permission so it had to be built on the site of the ferry instead. A humpbacked span in Portland stone soon emerged, the central arch higher than the others to allow shipping to pass through.

For the original shareholders it was a nice little earner, and only when the last of them died in 1859 were crossing charges (immediately) lifted. The next big challenge came in the 1930s with an increase in motorised traffic. The authorities resisted demolition and total replacement, opting instead to widen the bridge by demolishing the upstream side and rebuilding it stone by stone alongside lengthened piers. This cunning solution remains sufficient today and means that Richmond Bridge is technically the oldest bridge across the Thames anywhere between Abingdon and the North Sea.

It still looks magnificent whether you're up on the main span or admiring it from the riverside, perhaps with a hot drink on the terrace at the Tide Tables cafe. I tried to return to the precise spot where I took my most-liked-ever Flickr photograph last month, but an artist was already in place sketching the bridge in charcoal which just goes to show what a good spot it was. Today's photo was therefore taken on the western bank from the foot of the crumbling slipway (warning, parked vehicles may be partially submerged). Additional peculiarities worth seeking out include the massive milestone at the Surrey end, the foot tunnel which carries the Thames Path underneath and the splendid Victorian lamps which are still gas lit. The oldest bridge and still the best.

Richmond Railway Bridge (1848)

This bridge was needed when the London and South Western Railway decided they wanted to extend their line from Richmond to Windsor, and as such is one of the oldest railway bridges across the Thames. It crosses the edge of the Old Deer Park on a brick viaduct then launches across the river via three truss arches to land on the Twickenham side. The original was made of cast iron, which worried engineers when a similar bridge in Norbury collapsed so this one was duly rebuilt using steel in 1908, though retaining many of the original elements. Plaques facing the towpath approaches clearly state the name of the rebuilder - 'the Horseley and Co Ld / London and Tipton'. It's not a bad-looking bridge but perhaps suffers here from proximity to superior spans. My hunch is that the mustardy yellow paintwork is not the original colour.

Twickenham Bridge (1933)

This sleek crossing was built in the 1930s to help relieve traffic pressure on Richmond Bridge and was inserted downstream as part of the construction of the Chertsey Arterial Road, today the A316. Initial plans were for it to feature four 70-foot-high towers, but when the Daily Telegraph got wind of this intrusive abomination it spearheaded a NIMBY campaign and the end result was a much lower span. Again we have three arches but this time they're made from reinforced concrete, 45000 tons of the stuff, completed with a ribbed finish. HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, performed the opening ceremony.

The bridge is embellished with splendid Art Deco features, most notably the bronze lamp standards on the parapets. Elsewhere bronze has been used liberally to create decorative railings that span the bridge and also spiral down the stairwells in each corner, beguiling passers-by on the towpath to climb up for a classier view. The bridge was one of the first to incorporate internal hinges enabling the structure to adjust to changes in temperature, and these are shielded behind gorgeous wing-shaped bronze cover plates at the foot of each arch.

Although I'd previously walked under it (and also up one stairwell) I'd never walked across it, not until I made a special effort yesterday, so that's now every public crossing of the Thames crossed off.

Richmond Lock and Footbridge (1894)

This massive intervention is a lock first and a footbridge second. It's the lowest lock on the Thames and was built to try to stabilise water levels which previously tended to be overly shallow hereabouts, especially at low tide. The barrage which now blocks the river incorporates three mechanical sluice gates which are only raised for two hours either side of high tide. Outside these times boats have to pass through a lock instead and pay £10 for the privilege, with monies collected by the Port of London Authority who own the entire structure. It's a very Victorian solution and one that helps keep pleasurecraft upriver from coming into contact with awkward tidal flow.

The lock's designers also incorporated a footbridge, indeed two parallel crossings a few metres apart, not just as a convenience but also to allow spectators to get a closer look. A one penny toll was payable, or double that if you planned to linger. These days the turnstiles have gone and the elaborate tollbooths are empty, plus only one of the footbridges remains accessible. But the upper walkway still impresses - scaffolding excepted - with its elaborate cast iron balustrade, globe lamps and pastel green colour scheme.

I like how it's also still an integral part of the local neighbourhood, crossed by residents lugging their shopping home oblivious to any swirling and gushing underneath. Out in East London we'd love to have just one bridge across the Thames, let alone four as good as this.

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