Bridges of the British Isles.

We would all recognize London' s famous Tower Bridge, some may have heard about Iron Bridge, but in general bridges are not obvious tourist attractions. They were built to serve a simple purpose - to join the opposite banks of a river. But despite their apparent simplicity, they can be highly complex, stunningly beautiful, wonderfully inspiring and definitely worth seeing.

Some people believe that bridges were the first structures ever built by humans. Because as people wandered through the countryside easy access across a river or ravine was more important than housing. Later bridges played an important part in establishing cities.

The world' s first Iron Bridge was erected in the English county of Shropshire in 1779. The following century produced a greater number of bridges than had ever existed before. Great Britain was then the world leader in the design and building of bridges. It is estimated that in the British Isles today there are over 200,000 road bridges and over 60,000 rail bridges.

Towering over the Thames

London' s Tower Bridge is definitely the best known and most admired of all Britain' s bridges. It is a symbol of the capital and instantly recognizable around the world. It is also the only bridge where one can have a look inside, where the massive machinery used to lift the bridge is on display. When it first opened, over a hundred years ago, Tower Bridge was raised over twenty times a day to let ships through. Nowadays it is raised only a few times a week and twenty-four hours notice has to be given.

Another, no less famous, is London Bridge. The present one, a very plain structure, is the fifth construction in this place. The first bridge was built of wood by the Romans between AD100 and 400. Later it was replaced by a stone one which, until the middle of the eighteenth century, was the only bridge in London. In 1967 it was sold to an American millionaire and re-erected in Arizona. Apparently the rich businessman thought he was buying Tower Bridge and it was only when he' d spent millions of dollars and the bridge was rebuilt that he discovered his mistake! In London the
present concrete construction was built replacing the old bridge stone by stone without interrupting traffic flow.

Suicidal suspension bridge

It is well worth venturing out of London to see three exceptional bridges designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Probably the most spectacular of them is Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. It was designed by Brunel when he was only twenty-four years old in 1829 and not completed until thirty years later, after his death. The over 213-metre-long structure was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. To this day this splendid structure inspires engineers and romantics - but is also very popular with people wishing to commit suicide. Special barriers designed to prevent people from jumping and signs suggesting contacting the Samaritans from telephone boxes on each end haven' t reduced the popularity of the place. On average someone jumps to his or her death almost once a month.

Another extraordinary bridge designed by Brunel is in Saltash on the outskirts of the city of Plymouth and joins Devon with Cornwall. Its two parts were assembled on the banks and then moved into position on pontoons. Brunel directed his army of workmen by a series of complicated signals, using numbers and flags. Over the next months the parts were lifted up one metre at a time to their final position by hydraulic jacks as the masonry was built up.

Brunel designed one more bridge about which all his critics were agreed - it would never stand. At first sight the bridge over the river Thames in Maidenhead does not look so impressive, but it is still the world' s largest brick arch. This bridge was the setting for Turner' s famous painting of the steam age called" Rain, Steam and Speed" . Today trains reach over 200 kilometres per hour while passing over it but the construction of the unrivalled engineer stays intact.

Scottish Eiffel Tower

There are many Scottish bridges which have earned their place in history. The Glenfinnan Viaduct in the Scottish Highlands was the first major structure built of concrete. The Tay Bridge, which joins Newport with Dundee, was at one point the longest bridge in the world. It measures over three kilometres and is still the longest of all bridges in the British Isles. But the most spectacular bridge in Scotland is the Forth Bridge, sometimes called the" Scottish Eiffel Tower" or the" Eighth Wonder of the World" - a hundred years ago it was described as" the uttermost example of ugliness" .

Of the many bridges spanning the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin, Ha' Penny Bridge, designed for pedestrians, is the most elegant. Its name means half penny, the fee one had to pay to cross it until early this century. Nowadays we can cross it for free. It was featured in the excellent movie Lulu on the Bridge. From here Mira Sorvino throws a blue stone and later jumps to her death.

New bridges are always being built throughout the British Isles. In May the new Millennium Bridge opened in London and in Dublin an extraordinary bridge in the shape of a harp is being constructed. And the future? In London' s Science Museum as part of an exhibition showing new uses of materials, it is possible to cross a bridge made of glass, which hangs on wires only one-and-a-half millimetres thick. The sky is the limit for the human imagination and who knows what the future may bring in terms of bridge design. But for the time being, if you' re visiting the British Isles spare a few moments to appreciate the bridges which have already been built.