30 October 2015

"River, Railway and Ravine: Foot Suspension Bridges for Empire" by Douglas Harper

Here is a lovely work of special-interest history. River, Railway and Ravine (The History Press, 2015, 164pp) [amazon.co.uk] documents the suspension bridges of John and Louis Harper, Aberdeenshire fence-makers turned bridge-builders.

Between 1870 and 1910, the Harpers designed and built over 40 suspension footbridges, mostly in the UK, but also as far afield as India, Nepal, Estonia, South Africa and the West Indies. Few survive now, and I've only visited one, at Newquay, although there are bridges built by the Aberdeen firm of James Abernethy in which Louis Harper may have had a hand, such as those at Aberlour and Cambus O'May.

Descendant of the Harper family, Douglas Harper, has been researching his family's engineering history for some time, with much of it documented on the Harper Bridges website. Now, this excellent book offers far more detail on the family firm's achievements, and I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in historical suspension bridges.

The Harpers were innovators in their field: early users of steel wire rope; developers of a specialist wire-tensioning device; and users of pre-tensioned cables at deck level to greatly increase the stiffness of their designs.

The book gives a good history of the family, and their work both in fencing and then bridge-making, and puts this in context with a chapter exploring other suspension bridge developments in the 19th century.

The main part of the book offers detailed discussions of every bridge built by John Harper, and his son Louis. These are accompanied by numerous well-reproduced photographs and drawings, both present-day and archival. The level of research presented is remarkable.

What makes the book a particularly enjoyable read is the personal touch, as the author has attempted to visit as many of the bridges sites as he could, even where long-since demolished. In particular, the tale of his trip to Nepal turns the book from a simple historical record into a narrative which brings the past very much to life.

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