19 October 2010

"An Encyclopaedia of Britain's Bridges"

[Update 6th October 2019: I've now reviewed the second edition.]

It's not long since I was waxing lyrical over several of the books that have been published documenting the bridges of Britain. At the time, I noted that a new addition to the pile was due soon, and indeed, here it is, arriving in late October.

David McFetrich's "An Encyclopaedia of Britain's Bridges" (Priory Ash, ISBN 978-0-9566387-0-0, 2010, 352pp) is easily the largest and most comprehensive book on the subject. The main A-Z section covers 1,350 bridges from England, Scotland and Wales (no Northern Ireland - an Encyclopaedia of Bridges of the United Kingdom is still awaited).

The book's introduction includes a very short history of Britain's transport infrastructure, explanations of basic structural behaviour, and a helpful glossary of terms. I would say that the book is mainly aimed at the non-specialist reader, but contains plenty to keep the more dedicated bridgespotter happy. McFetrich was at one time a civil engineer, and this ensures the Encyclopaedia finds a balance between history and technology not always achieved in such books.

There are several things that the book is not: it doesn't offer a history of bridge building in Britain, nor any detailed coverage of bridge builders and designers. For the most part, it tries to remain factual and straightforward, offering little in the way of critical opinion on any of the bridges (although the Gateshead Millennium Bridge merits a well-deserved "superb"). It treads a middle path, between the rambling anecdotes of certain bridge historians and the overly technical. In these respects, it's complementary to other books already available, but in its sheer scope, it offers something unavailable elsewhere.

Before I opened it, I wondered a little about the place of the print Encyclopaedia in the Wikipedia age. Surely there's less need for a traditional reference work like this when Google can tell you all you need to know? Well, the reality is that many of the bridges featured here have little or no information available online.

The curatorial aspect is also significant: even an ardent Pontist can't fail to find dozens of structures here which are not only unfamiliar, but also often remarkably interesting, and the Encyclopaedia format naturally leads to providential juxtaposition. You go looking for the Iron Bridge, Shropshire, and become intrigued by the Iron Bridge in Exeter. A chance meeting with David Rowell's Llanstephan Bridge is the result of a search for the Llanrwst Bridge of Inigo Jones.

Not all the entries are accompanied by a photograph, but the book remains very well-illustrated, mostly with recent colour images but also a few paintings and other images. Most bridges get a reasonable paragraph or two of detail, with references to other publications - the book is a copious compendium of secondary sources, with a marvellous bibliography.

I managed to find a few bridges of interest that aren't included, but I had to try quite hard, and was constantly surprised to find it included bridges that I knew were interesting but had thought quite obscure. It was intriguing to find not only the many bridges I had visited, but also several that I have worked on one time or another. I didn't spot many errors either, although there certainly were a couple (e.g. the inclusion of Hadrian's Bridge, which was never built).

The main A-Z is supplemented by several further sections. A "bridge miscellany" offers short entries on subjects such as "Aesthetics of bridges", "Collapses and failures of bridges", "Cornes-de-vache arch bridges" and "Lenticular bridges". Although the author downplays the level of detail offered, this section offers a host of interesting information, as do several pages of lists of record-breaking structures of various kinds.

A geographical index is provided, including map references and information on which bridges have Listed status (Grade I and A only). There's also a fine general index, making it easier to track down groups of bridges according to their designer, railway, canal, highway or river.

Overall, it's a marvellous addition to the literature on British bridges, and being published at a very handy time for Pontists preparing their Xmas present lists. The book can only be bought direct from the publisher (price £45 inclusive of p&p) and is not available in shops (it's listed by Amazon but don't hold your breath waiting for them to supply it). The publisher can be contacted at Priory Ash, 2 Denford Ash Cottages, Denford, Kettering, Northants NN14 4EW, by telephone at 01832 734425, or by email to wadams1907@aol.com.

It's also now available in the ICE Bookshop and through a dedicated website.

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