13 April 2021

"Fowler's Bridges" by Aidan Bell

Sir John Fowler is best known (with Sir Benjamin Baker) as one of the engineers responsible for the Forth Railway Bridge, completed in 1890, a masterpiece of Victorian civil engineering. During his illustrious career, Fowler was responsible for many other bridges and railways, including much of what is now the Circle Line on the London Underground.

Aidan Bell's book "Fowler's Bridges" (self-published and available from biblio.com, ISBN 978-1-5272-7661-1, 190pp, 2020) deals with the engineer's most famous works only in passing. Instead it is an in-depth study of the estate that Fowler developed at Braemore, near Ullapool in Scotland, and the bridges that he built there, many with Baker's assistance.

Fowler's life story is one of almost constant upward progress. Born in 1817, Fowler set himself on a career in engineering as soon as he left school. His first few years saw him apprenticed to John Towlerton Leather, George Leather and John Urpeth Rastrick. He rapidly took on increasing responsibility, before setting up independently at the age of 26 in 1843. It was the period of railway mania, and Fowler was in the thick of it, taking on chief engineer roles and promoting schemes in Parliament.

By 1849, Fowler was elected to the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, going on to become its President in 1865. By that time his consulting practice had grown substantially and was working on over 70 large projects each year. Fowler's army of assistants were based at premises in London, where he also had his main residence.

Also in 1865, Fowler bought the first of two estates near Ullapool in northern Scotland, Braemore, merging it two years later with the adjacent Inverbroom estate. This was to be his holiday home, and he would spend two months of each year there. A new house was built, with innovations including hydro-electric power for electric lighting, and many improvements were made to access around the estate. Fowler had become a proper Victorian gentleman, eventually adding a Baronetcy to his Knighthood, enjoying the Highland hunting life, and entertaining guests at what must have seemed a very remote place to some.

In this painstakingly detailed book, Aidan Bell recounts the story of Fowler's life and career, and documents the Braemore estate, providing detailed descriptions of several "miniature" bridges which Fowler had installed within the landscape. The estate was very different in character to many of those of the landed gentry, with its rough terrain and steep river gorges. The only comparable landscaped Victorian estate seems to be William Armstrong's Cragside.

Two of the estate bridges are relatively well-known: Corrieshalloch Suspension Bridge, and Auchindrean Bridge. The bridge at Corrieshalloch stands out for its situation above a waterfall, allowing visitors spectacular views of the river gorge. The Auchindrean bridge spans a less dramatic location, but is notable as the largest lenticular bridge surviving in Scotland today. It has similarities to Brunel's larger Saltash bridge.

The other bridges are less spectacular, but interesting in how Braemore was treated very differently to other Victorian estates. As an engineer, Fowler seems to have had little interest in the sort of faux-classicism that decorated the property of other wealthy landowners. The Braemore bridges are economically appropriate solutions to difficult terrain, rather than ornamental. They are for the most part aesthetically unspectacular, encouraging the visitor to look away from the bridge and admire the scenic grandeur instead.

Bell's book is heavy on detail. Many of the bridges no longer exist, but each bridge site is described in detail, with photographs and even diagrams to illustrate the structural behaviour of each bridge. It is, to be fair, so much detail that it is likely to be too much for the casual reader, but I certainly enjoyed its thoroughness. The book may be best suited to anyone with an interest in Fowler himself, or Scottish historic bridges generally, or the way in which an estate's development illustrated the expertise and philosophy of an engineering owner.

For me it raises interesting questions around taste. The desire of others to ornament their lands with the mock-Palladian, columns and porticos and pediments taken out of context and plopped down amidst soft green vistas seems to be a taste that has survived today. Prince Charles is perhaps the most notorious modern proponent of a belief that beauty can be found mainly in the past, and that the tics and tropes of the classical are a timeless aesthetic, rather than a pastiche shorn of meaning when taken out of context.

As an engineer, Fowler is more likely to have seen the problem that needed solving as one of spanning an obstacle, rather than decorating a view. The functional nature of the Braemore bridges suggests a love of a more natural landscape, and a desire to make his intrusions into it as modest as was possible. It seems an aesthetic approach to admire and emulate: bridges creating new spaces to admire the surroundings rather than to function primarily as sculpture. There are designers still working today who could benefit from that philosophy.

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