13 March 2019

"Britain's Greatest Bridges" by Joseph Rogers

Two books published this month from Amberley Books may be of interest to readers: "Aqueducts and Viaducts of Britain" by Victoria Owens and "Britain's Greatest Bridges" by Joseph Rogers. Both books are 96 pages long and well illustrated in colour. I'll cover the Rogers book in this post, and the Owens book next time.

I think it's best not to get hung up on the title of "Britain's Greatest Bridges", which begs questions from the outset. The book is set out in 40 chapters, each documenting a bridge ranging in date from the Tarr Steps up to the Queensferry Crossing. Many of the choices are shoo-ins: Royal Albert Bridge, Tower Bridge, Iron Bridge, Severn Bridge, Mathematical Bridge etc. But there are plenty of surprising absentees: Union Chain Bridge, Kylesku Bridge, Ballochmyle Viaduct, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Tyne Bridge, Grosvenor Bridge, Maidenhead Railway Bridge, Bideford Long Bridge, Glenfinnan Viaduct, Craigellachie Bridge - the list of aggrieved runners-up could be quite long. Just think of the book instead as "My Favourite British Bridges", and that's fine.

The book is weakest in the modern era. Do Itchen Bridge (span 125m) or Kingston Bridge (143m) really deserve to feature ahead of the mighty Orwell Bridge (190m)? None of the excellent concrete motorway bridges of the 1950s/1960s appear, and the selection of modern 'architectural bridges' is at best idiosyncratic (London Millennium Bridge, Salford Quays Lift Bridge, Scale Lane Swing Bridge, rather than Gateshead, Forthside, Castleford, Infinity, the Rolling Bridge etc). Some choices are a genuine surprise, most notably the Steampipe Bridge at the University of Birmingham.

Rogers is no bridge expert, but has clearly spent plenty of time researching his subject. It's a book for the non-specialist, someone with an interest in transport, history or architecture. A general reader should come away with an understanding of quite what a splendid set of structures this country can boast. From that perspective, I think the willingness to depart from the obvious is a positive feature. 96 pages sounds short, but I thought it was a reasonable length and appropriate to the subject matter.

The illustrations are well chosen, supplementing photographs with drawings, old postcards and other historic images, although some of the photographs are gloomy, lack contrast and have not reproduced well.

For the specialist, it's not a book I can especially recommend: there are no references or index, and several attempts to explain the structural engineering of specific bridges are clumsy and in some cases a little misleading. Indeed, generally the bridge is strong on historical and geographical anecdote, but weak on engineering and architecture. No editor is credited, and that shows in the sometimes clunky prose and occasional grammatical errors.

On balance, then, this is not one of "Britain's Greatest Books about Bridges", and definitely one for the general reader rather than a dyed-in-the-wool bridges buff.

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