On a peaceful day the Menai Strait can look like a gentle river,
glassy and green as it winds through wooded shores. But watch the
powerful currents race past the town of Menai Bridge - or the
turbulent whirlpools known as the Swellies - and another identity
The strait is a funnel of the Irish
Sea, surging with incoming tide from both east and west.
For thousands of years this stretch of water has challenged
human ingenuity. Causeways and ferries carried passengers and
livestock across ever-shifting sandbanks and channels. Many farmers
swam across with their animals - and some didn't make it. In 1785,
one ferry boat went down with 55 people aboard. Admiral Nelson
himself spoke of the perils of navigating a tall ship through the
Inspiration, Innovation, and Industry
In January 1826 a marvel
of engineering ended Anglesey's isolation forever. The opening of
the new Menai Suspension Bridge linked the new A5 road from London
to Holyhead, the port for Ireland. This was the first large iron
suspension bridge in the world, a graceful and magnificent
In March 1850 a second bridge was opened to the west, the
Britannia Tubular Railway Bridge. This too was a radical,
pioneering piece of engineering that astonished the
Menai Suspension Bridge: The world's first large iron
In 1818, after the great
Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) designed
the A5 road, he drew up plans for his masterpiece, the Menai
Suspension Bridge. Resident engineer William Arthur Provis laid the
first stone the following year. He had limestone quarried at Penmon
and shipped to the site.
Gradually the arches, piers and towers rose higher and
higher. The bridge was to have a final height of 45.7 metres,
with the timber deck 30.5 metres above the waterline. The Admiralty
demanded enough clearance for the tall-masted sailing vessels of
The length of the bridge measured 304.8 metres, with a
central span of 176.5 metres. This section was suspended by 16
wrought iron chains. Each weighed over 23 tonnes, and it took 150
labourers to raise them with pulleys, turning a capstan in time to
music. The chains were anchored deep into the bedrock on both
Workers completed the bridge in 1825, and they opened it to the
mail coach service in January 1826, amidst public rejoicing. Travel
time from London to Holyhead was cut from 36 hours to 27.
The Menai Bridge became
famous worldwide, and even featured in a nonsense poem in Lewis
Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. Carroll jokes about a
scheme to prevent the bridge rusting by boiling it in wine. In
reality the chains were kept in condition with linseed oil.
All traffic paid a toll to cross until 1941. A steel deck
replaced the timber one in 1893, and steel chains replaced the iron
From Menai Bridge town, walk today along Lôn Cei Bont for a
spectacular view of the bridge from the waterfront, with soaring
perspectives. For a more distant view, with the mountains of
Snowdonia behind, stop off at the lay-bys on the Holyhead Road.
Britannia Tubular Railway Bridge: A wonder in wrought
It was Anglesey's good
fortune to have another engineering genius design its second
great bridge across the Menai Strait. Robert Stephenson
(1803-59), son of railway pioneer George Stephenson, chose the
site, 1.6 km to the west of the first bridge, because the
Britannia Rock, mid-Strait, could provide good foundations for the
central pier. Work began in 1846.
It was challenging and dangerous work - a memorial in the
churchyard of St Mary in Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll records the names of
20 labourers and others who died during the construction and repair
of the bridge.
On the advice of the structural engineer and shipbuilder Sir
William Fairbairn, Stephenson decided to do away with supporting
chains and to let the trains run through rigid rectangular tubes of
wrought iron, supported by towers of local limestone. This was a
revolutionary scheme: the longest previous wrought-iron span had
measured 9.6 metres. These would be ten times longer!
Each of the central tube sections was 140 metres long and
weighed 1,830 tonnes. Side sections were 70 metres long. Rivets?
Approximately 2 million!
build the bridge, workmen floated the massive central sections on
pontoons, jacked them up 32 metres and then secured them by the
stonework - again, high enough for the tall ships of the day to
sail below. Designers crafted the towers in the then-fashion-
able Egyptian style and flanked the ends of the bridge with
stone lions carved by John Thomas. These beasts passed into
Anglesey folklore. The bridge was opened at last in March 1850 -
with a concert performed in the new tunnel.
The Chester and Holyhead Railway became part of the LNWR (London
& North Western Railway) in 1859. For commerce, industry and
passenger travel, a new era was beginning for both Anglesey and
The Britannia becomes a double-decker
On the evening of 23 May 1970 some boys dropped a
burning torch on the bridge; it caught fire and burned across the
span. The intense heat weakened the iron, and officials declared
the bridge unsafe.
Engineer Sir Charles Husband supervised reconstruction,
using the original stone piers but employing steel arches for
support. The rail crossing was operating again by 1972, and eight
years later a concrete road deck was added on top.
The changes did not deter peregrine falcons from nesting on
the tops and hunting pigeons from the Treborth Botanical
Travellers along the A55 expressway or on the West Coast
Mainline rail line get little impression of the grandeur of
Britannia Bridge as they speed towards the port of Holyhead.
However if you walk along the footpaths between the shores of the
Strait and Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, the view of this massive
structure is seriously impressive.