First up an attempt to view the eastern entrance to the Severn Railway Tunnel. Constructed between 1873 and 1886, this subterranean 'crossing' is over 4 miles and long and, until the opening of the Channel Tunnel, was the longest in Britain's railway system. On the map this looks an easy stroll from the road, but this is a working mainline and I predicted that access could be tricky; and so it proved to be. Although a public footpath circumnavigated the entrance, its location in a deep cutting bounded by overgrown embankments and ditches prevented any possibility of viewing from the right of way. High steel fencing completed the sense of prosaic impregnability. If Railtrack were responsible for designing the ramparts and palisades of Iron Age hill-forts, this is how they would look.
So, a detour is required across fields, marked by the humps and bumps of medieval ridge and furrow, to clear the range of the security fencing, negotiate a more conventional wire fence and plunge into bush and brier to ascend the embankment. Eventually a way is found through the nettles and thorns and a view of the cutting is won. Sadly, a service road in full sight of a nearby maintenance depot would need to be crossed to obtain a full view of the turreted tunnel entrance. A little disappointed, I retrace my tracks and notice that the gate to the depot is now open. Two fluorescent coated workmen are preoccupied with checking machinery and do not notice my brief trespass to the top of steps down to the tunnel entrance; and so I get the close-up photo I had been seeking.
|The Second Severn Crossing|
|The Severn Bridge|
|Image courtesy of www.flickr.com|
So with Like A Rolling Stone in my head, but displaying a much lower quotient of effortless cool, I trod the rotting boards of the jetty through a jungle of eight foot high spartina (rice grass, introduced in the early twentieth century to help stabilise the shoreline) to emerge on the mud-flats; here the immensity of the estuary spread before me, eyes lifted to the gleaming white carriageway and massive steel towers of the suspension bridge, geographically close but temporarily centuries apart. From this point on, the boards have gone and just the timber footings and cross beams remain, but it remains a wondrous spot for a photo-opportunity.
With the weather due to close in, now was the time to take a walk on the Severn Bridge. Unlike the interloper to the south, the original bridge has walkways and cycle paths spanning its length. Although time was against walking the two miles to the western end of the bridge and back I stepped out to the middle, feeling the life of this inert structure through the wind whipping in from the north - seemingly directly from the uplands of Plynlimon, and the vibrations beneath my feet as juggernaut's shuddered by. Meanwhile my smart phone experienced stage fright as the camera refused to focus when pointed upwards to the 450 feet high support, as if awe-struck, as I was, by the intensity of the vision in its sights.
The earliest recording of a ferry crossing from Purton to its namesake settlement on the west bank is 1282 and it continued t0 be used until 1879 and the coming of the railway bridge. From here the canal runs parallel to, and yards from, the river and I followed the tow-path to lead me to the residual architecture of the bridge.
A bend in the canal turned and there standing sentinel stood the remains of the bridge. But first the story of the bridge and its shocking demise:
All that now survives are the circular engine house, built to power the swing bridge over the canal, and the bridge's first arch; majestic ruins, as ancient looking as any medieval fortress. An industrial archaeology quest had been fulfilled, providing a fitting end to a day of discovery, traversing temporal and spatial boundaries in search of seven crossings.