Since prehistoric times, the Severn Estuary had been an obstacle for people who have wanted to cross it. The construction of the rail tunnel provided the first link that was not affected by the weather and the tides. However, the motor vehicle arrived and, with time, the ferries were unable to provide for all the cars and lorries wishing to travel between South Wales and England. A road bridge was required.
How was it to be built? How were all the difficulties overcome? The result was a world class structure with a revolutionary design that has stood the test of time, despite great increases in the number and weight of the vehicles that it has had to carry. This is its story.
For more information on the background to the first bridge, Click Here
The age of the motor car had arrived
Growth in the use of all forms of road transport gradually increased demand for a bridge across the Severn. There were more cars and lorries on the roads. There was more pressure to shorten journey times and greater value was given to time-savings.
In 1945, the Ministry of Transport announced that it would take forward the first Severn road crossing scheme. It was the culmination of aspirations that went back for more than 100 years.
The Power of Nature
A bridge across the Estuary would need to be capable of withstanding nature in all its moods. The tidal range on this part of the Estuary is the second largest in the world – 14 metres – and the water flows at up to 8 knots on the large tides. The large spring tides create the famous Severn Bore, a tidal wave which rushes up the estuary as far as Gloucester, and can be 3 metres high. High winds gust at over 100 mph.
What to build? Where and why and who would pay?
Was there a crossing point that would significantly shorten the route from South Wales to Bristol and to London? There is a local narrowing of the estuary between the Aust Cliff and Beachley Head. By taking advantage of this, the distance and time savings would lead to great economic benefits. There was wide support for the decision to provide a suspension bridge across the estuary at this point.
At the time, a suspension bridge was the only type of structure that could cross the 1.6 km gap without needing many piers to be built in the aggressive river conditions. Also, a suspension bridge could carry the roadway high above the water, 37 metres above the level of the high tide, to allow larger ships to pass beneath it.
Suspension bridges carrying roadways had existed for well over 100 years – the nearby Clifton suspension bridge was designed in the 1830s. A suspension bridge has five main elements: the main suspension cables, the hangers that support the roadway from the main cables, the stiffening girder that reduces the deflections of the roadway as the traffic travels across the bridge, the towers that hold up the main cables, and the anchorages that resist the tension in the main cables.
For more information on how suspension bridges work
Decision to go ahead
In 1946 a National Plan was published by the Ministry of Transport showing the first road crossing of the Severn on the Aust-Beachley-Newhouse line. Engineers and architects were appointed for the scheme and the general location of the bridge was fixed by statutory order on 22nd of July 1947. As well as the suspension bridge, the route would also require a bridge over the River Wye and 13 km of new trunk road.
Such a large scheme would bring massive benefits, but how would it be paid for? Those who benefited by using the bridge could be charged tolls for the journey time saved. The government would have to provide funds to pay for the construction initially and an act of Parliament would be required for tolls to be collected.