17 March 2019

"Aqueducts and Viaducts of Britain" by Victoria Owens

This is the second of two books about bridges published this month from Amberley Books. I featured "Britain's Greatest Bridges" by Joseph Rogers in my last post.

"Aqueducts and Viaducts of Britain" by Victoria Owens is 96 pages long and well-supplied with recent colour photographs, plus a few older illustrations. The book focuses on two centuries from 1760 to 1960, a prolific period of bridge construction driven first by the canals, then railways, then roads and motorways. There are, of course, older structures which could be considered viaducts, but Owens notes that the very term 'viaduct' is a reasonably recent coinage, introduced by landscape designer Humphrey Repton in 1816.

If Rogers' book on Britain's greatest bridges necessarily skips along the surface of its subject without ever getting in too deep, Owens' book is the precise opposite, submerged in its topic from the first page (there is no introduction) and only occasionally pausing to return to the surface for breath.

Within the first three paragraphs the book dives straight into the tale of James Brindley's Barton Aqueduct, Britain's first navigable aqueduct. Owens is something of a Brindley specialist, so the start of the canal age is covered well, although disappointingly the Barton bridge's successor, the remarkable and unique Barton Swing Aqueduct is given only passing attention. In general, it's fair to say that the book is noticeably more thorough in its coverage for the early part of the period covered.

The first four chapters of the book are split equally between early aqueducts and viaducts, including structures such as the Kelvin Aqueduct, Lune Aqueduct, Stanley Ferry Aqueduct, Sankey Viaduct, London and Greenwich Railway etc. A fifth chapter tackles problems that the designers and builders encountered, such as how to create skew spans, prevent scour, and mollify recalcitrant landowners: quite a variety of challenges!

The sixth chapter addresses the use of timber and iron, with wooden structures such as Ouseburn Viaduct, Brunel's Cornish railway viaducts, and Barmouth Bridge. Metal viaducts include Tyneside's High Level Bridge, Crumlin Viaduct, and Bennerley Viaduct. As in the earlier sections, many of the structures featured are less well known than those I have highlighted here.

Chapter 7 is the odd-one-out: a "case study" of the viaducts of the Settle to Carlisle Railway, masonry viaducts built in the 1870s, some in spectacular countryside. The best known structure is the Ribblehead Viaduct. Chapter 8 discusses the estuarial crossings of the Solway, Tay and Forth, while the final chapter features a very much abbreviated range of more recent concrete and steel bridges. The book concludes with a helpful bibliography and index.

Generally, the book is well written, well informed, and contained much that I did not already know. It tackles the history of each bridge effectively, and is confident in its description of architectural and engineering aspects. However, it jumps from bridge to bridge too rapidly, and would have benefited from putting its facts into a wider context. It's a little breathless at times.

It's probably not a book for the very general reader, but one for bridge enthusiasts, or those with a specific interest in canals, railways, and transport architecture.

Further reading:

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