Iron Bridge Built For Horse-Drawn Wagons (24 January 1976)
I see that Tickford Bridge is in the news again. This time it is not directly threatened with demolition, as it was in 1967. Apparently the authorities are merely examining the advisability of strengthening it further, in case the cast-ironwork should crack under ever-increasing road loads.
In fact, it was wonderful how the bridge stood up to the traffic as long as it did. For it was built in 1810, a time when horse-drawn wagons and coaches formed the heaviest loads. Yet it went on to serve the first 50 or 60 years of the motor age just as well.
Actually, it is a very fine bridge, though probably not more than one in a thousand drivers using it to cross the Ouzel just south of Newport Pagnell on the road to Wavendon, Woburn and Hockcliffe knows or cares. That is because they do not have time to view it from the sides. The road ahead is their only concern – as, indeed, it has to be in these days when all are engaged in getting nowhere fast.
But if they could view it from the side they would soon realise that this old bridge, besides being amazingly strong, is amazingly elegant. A classic example of the theory that in these matters what looks well is well.
For the technically-minded, it is known as an open-framed voussoir bridge. It is the only one of its type left in Britain. There is only one other in the world and that is in Spanish Town, Jamaica – if it hasn’t been pulled down these last few years.
At the time is was built the Industrial Revolution had been in accelerating progress for a good number of years and things were beginning to hum in the transport world as well. The canal had been in use since before the turn of the century and men like Telford, McAdam and “Blind Jack” Metcalfe were busy making new roads and re-making old ones.
The old stone bridge over the Ouzel was no longer adequate for the increased traffic and the trustees decided to have a new one.
Bridges were now being made of cast iron. One had recently been built over the Wear at Sunderland which was being acclaimed as one of the wonders of the new age. It was the longest single-span cast iron bridge ever to be made. In 1809 one of the Newport trustees went by road all the way to Sunderland to inspect it. His report was so favourable that the Newport trustees plumped for one of their own.
The Wear bridge had been cast by Messrs Walker, of Rotherham, Yorks, a leading firm of ironmasters since the mid-1700s and the greatest bridge-casters of all time. They were chosen to do the Newport job and forthwith set to work on casting all the sections. Meanwhile a Mr Provis was designing and supervising the building of the abutments.
The castings were sent from Rotherham to London – probably by sea from the Humber – and from there by canal to Linford, where they were encarted for Newport. Messrs Walker also sent their own expert to engineer the ironwork.
Thus was built a bridge that was meant to last and which has lasted even though carrying loads beyond the builders’ wildest expectations. It is said to be Messrs Walker’s last surviving major work. If so, it is a fitting tribute to their skill and workmanship.
It may be asked why what some regard as “sleepy old Newport” went to those lengths in providing a new bridge at Tickford. The answer is that for hundreds of years up to well past the coming of the railways only last century Newport was the virtual capital of North Bucks and was far from sleepy. Buckingham was probably the first town, since it gave its name to the shire. But Newport came a good second. They are the only places in Bucks known to have been boroughs at the time of the Norman Conquest. In Saxon times boroughs were known as “ports” irrespective of whether they were also ports in the modern sense of the word or not, and it is likely that Newport was literally the new port growing up between Buckingham and Bedford. Pagnell was added later as the name of the Norman lord of the manor to distinguish it from other Newports elsewhere in the country.
Ancient towns preferably had to have natural defences. Buckingham had them, being almost surrounded by the loop in the Ouse, and Newport also had them in the confluence of the Ouse and the Ouzel. But as time went on the defensive factor became less important. More important now was the communications factor.
The roads in and out of Buckingham were not unimportant. But Newport and Tickford were on a route that sometimes surpassed the Watling Street itself in traffic. This was the road that leaves the westward-curving Watling Street at Hockcliffe and continues northwards via Newport to Northampton, Leicester and Nottingham.
Constructed originally as a strategic military road, the Watling Street subsequently “made” Fenny Stratford and Stony Stratford into towns, of which the latter became the more important.
Essentially they were travellers’ towns. But Newport, besides being itself a travellers’ town, had by this time become also the commercial and administrative centre. It is a curious fact that even in our own time it was the first place in North Bucks where Woolworth’s thought fit to have a branch!
The building of the super bridge at Tickford in 1810, therefore, was no mere grandiose act of latter-day folly on the part of Newport, but a successful effort to boost the town’s interests still further.
That was the era of the stage coach. We have no figures of general traffic for those days. But we do know that in 1824 the number of stage coaches leaving Dunstable for the north each week totalled 204, of which 112 were scheduled to go via Stony Stratford and 92 via Tickford Bridge.
The railway then came and made its own towns, of which Bletchley and Wolverton are classic examples. But the subsequent upsurge of motor traffic restored the importance of roads and right up to the building of the M1 express buses from London to Northampton etc, went via Woburn and Newport. Some may still do so, for aught I know.