25 January 2018
By Neil Tidmarsh
Any more suggestions, anyone? How about a bridge to the stars? Or a bridge between the Present and the Past, perhaps? Or a bridge from the Realm of the Mortals to the Realm of the Gods?
Right then, come on, let’s get cracking. Would our Victorian forefathers have hesitated? No, they would not. We’ve got Wagner’s blueprint for the bridge from Midgard to Asgard, after all, thanks to his architect Wotan and his engineer Froh; all we need is a giant rainbow and some stirring music. As for the bridge from the Present to the Past, well, the auld Brig a Doon worked for Gene Kelly and Cyd Chrisse in the Vincent Minelli movie (not to mention Rabbie Burns and Tam O’Shanter), didn’t it? Now, the bridge to the stars, I admit that one might be a bit tricky… No, wait, it seems that Elon Musk has started work on it already.
It all began with London’s garden bridge, of course. You could hear poor old Father Thames groaning as Heatherwick, Arup and Lumley drew up their plans to dump another burden on his back. You could hear the Tyne Maidens singing their lament as the project threatened to steal the gold which more properly would have funded their Northern Powerhouse. But at last this folly has drowned, finally sinking beneath the surface under the weight of its spiralling costs, questions about restrictions of use and limits of access, doubts about maintenance, accusations of ignoring planning rules, suspicions of violating protected views, possible ecological damage, etc, etc.
After all that, you would have thought that the former Mayor of London would have turned his back on bridges forevermore, exclaiming “once bitten twice shy” (even though that saying is the exact opposite of his favourite “having your cake and eating it”, I suppose). But no – here he is this week, in his miraculous reincarnation as Foreign Secretary, proposing a bridge across the Channel, between Britain and France. While this may be an otherwise admirable attempt to show that not all Leavers are xenophobic isolationists, and while a 21 mile bridge across the world’s busiest shipping lane (500 vessels pass through it each day) would not be impossible thanks to modern technology, the cost would be prohibitive. One expert (Professor Alan Dunlop from Liverpool University’s school of architecture) put it at £120 billion and commented in The Times “It would really be cheaper to move France closer.” Boris, there’s a reason why all those sad piers (‘frustrated bridges’) along the south coast – Hastings, Eastbourne, Brighton – stop a mere few hundred yards out into the Channel, you know.
But now other people are at it. Only a few days later, it was reported that the Democratic Unionist Party are demanding a bridge across the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and Scotland. The party’s 2015 manifesto asked for a feasibility study, and now some experts estimate that a 25 mile bridge from Larne in County Antrim to Portpatrick in Dumfries and Galloway would cost £20 billion. Professor Alan Dunlop, who was dismissive of the Channel bridge (above), is not so dismissive of this one. He agrees that this improvement to the region’s infrastructure would be of huge economic benefit, possibly creating a “Celtic powerhouse”. He points out in The Times that the coastline “is more sheltered and the waterway better protected”, and “the shipping not nearly as significant”. Even Beaufort’s Dyke, a two-mile wide deep-sea trench, is no longer considered an insurmountable obstacle – oil-rig technology could be used to make the bridge float over that part of the channel.
So perhaps this one would be worthwhile. Perhaps it would work. Perhaps it would justify the epic disruption and expense. After all, mankind’s impulse to build bridges is a noble thing, the physical manifestation and fulfilment of his instinct to reach out, to connect, to join hands across the divide…
Hang on, hang on. I said the madness is catching, didn’t I?
Let’s not forget that bridges can also be a symbol of mankind’s hubris, of his tendency to over-reach himself, as we were sadly reminded last week – at least ten construction workers were tragically killed when an almost-completed motorway bridge collapsed in Colombia. The Chirajara bridge would have been 446m long and one of the highest in the world. The death toll would have been much higher had hundreds of other workers not been off-site at the time; they were attending a safety briefing nearby.
Imagine yourself standing “sur le Pont d’Avignon.” The Pont Saint-Bénézet was built across the Rhone from Avignon to Villeneuve-les-Avignon in the twelfth century. But no one has been able to cross for almost four centuries. The original bridge was destroyed by the army of King Louis VIII during the Albigensian Crusade, fifty years after it was built. A magnificent twenty-two arched structure replaced it, but it regularly collapsed when the Rhone flooded, and it was abandoned in the middle of the seventeenth century. Today, only four of those arches still survive. Dance too carelessly and you’ll end up falling into the water.
And imagine looking out over the Kerch Straits, where Russia is currently running itself even further into the red with a massive bridge-building project which, the Kremlin hopes, will eventually join the Crimea to Russia. It’s actually three bridges; the four lanes of motor traffic and two rail tracks will be built in three sections – of 7km, 6.5km and 5.5km – connected by two islands. It’s being built by the SGM Group, owned by Arkady Rotenberg who was, apparently, Putin’s judo teacher and who is a subject of the international sanctions which followed the Crimea crisis. The SGM group doesn’t have a lot of experience building bridges, according to BBC News – its core business is laying oil pipelines. The bridge was due to be completed by the end of last year, but it won’t be opening until the end of this year, or become fully operational until a year later.
Meanwhile, the Rhine Maidens are still singing their laments at the end of Das Rheingold. They know that Wotan has built the Rainbow Bridge to distract his fellow gods from accusations that he’s stolen the Rhine’s gold, and they know that the splendid bridge will not last forever, that sooner or later the enemies of the gods will come storming over it to destroy Asgard and its inhabitants.
Noble instinct to connect, or hubris inviting nemesis? I think we’ll wait a bit before ordering that bridge to France or Northern Ireland.