How many people must drive over Newport Pagnell’s Tickford Bridge without giving it so much as a second thought. But small though it may be, the ‘Iron Bridge’ is a quite wonderful piece of engineering – and one that has been serving the community for more than two centuries, writes Sammy Jones.
Previously, an ancient and much decayed bridge spanned the river Ouzel where our iron structure now is. The earlier example was possibly wooden and much longer. In June 1800 during the reign of George III an act of parliament gave the go ahead for the replacement you see today.
Local bridge trustees appointed Thomas Wilson and Henry Provis to design a bridge, having inspected one of his earlier examples over the River Wear in Sunderland.
Wilson was a schoolmaster and engineer active during the industrial revolution and best known for his designs of iron bridges. The one in Newport Pagnell isn’t the only one of his designs that have stood the test of time – Berkshire’s Stratfield Saye and the Spanish Town Bridge in Jamaica are other examples still carrying heavy loads.
It would have been a feat of engineering at that time too, with lots of manpower and effort behind the build; the cast components had a journey and a half to reach their final destination; from Rotherham, they were shipped by canal and sea to London, and then by canal and road to Newport Pagnell, and in 1810 there was only horsepower to get them there!
Work began in June of that year, with St John Street raised to accommodate the Iron Bridge and the river rerouted. By September it was complete, and for almost a century the bridge required no alteration or maintenance. But in the early 20th century, wrought iron road plates were added by local blacksmith John Bailey.
Then, in 1972, extensive masonry repairs were carried out to the wing wall parapets, followed a few years later by the addition of a reinforced concrete deck which was placed to distribute traffic loads evenly over the structure – after all, when it was erected there was a more relaxed pace of life!
How does it work? That is down to the stone abutments which absorb much of the outward thrust, and the immense strength of the bridge is due to its unique design, which has all joints pegged and in compression.
When it was first built, its use was as a toll bridge and the toll house is still present today, although it has been significantly altered over the years.
It is a Grade II listed ancient monument and something that Newportonian’s are very proud of.
“The Tickford or Iron Bridge is the only bridge of its kind in the UK still carrying load bearing traffic,” said Don Hurst, archivist historian with Newport Pagnell Historical Society, “The only other one similar is in Kingston Jamaica.”
In its listing, Historic England says that ‘Tickford Bridge is a foremost work of early cast-iron engineering, still surviving in near its original condition and taking modern traffic. It is a monument of national importance in the history of civil engineering and the use of cast iron.’
When painted, the black of the bridge still looks quite splendid, but occasionally it benefits from a colour burst – in recent years the Women’s Institute group in the town have taken to yarn-bombing the bridge during carnival weekend.
But the Iron Bridge isn’t the only one of interest in the area – the North Bridge, also built in 1810 is a single span bridge that allowed horse-drawn vehicles entry to and from the bustling town.
Previously, a ford existed at this point, and later a timber bridge stood alongside the ford.
The wooden bridge was rebuilt in stone around 1380 and was made up of three arches, which were captured by artists centuries ago.
Today, only one of the three 14th century arches remains, redundant and now played in by children in Ousebank Gardens where people refer to it as a cave.
While putting together planning for the building of the present bridge, authority was given to build a toll house – with gates – to take charges for anyone wanting to cross with animals or vehicles – and you wouldn’t have gotten through undetected; the front bay window of the toll house was used as a lookout to ensure that all due money was collected.
The proceeds were ploughed back into the costs incurred by the bridge.
One can imagine it would have been a busy little thoroughfare during its early life and in 1837 it was gas, not oil, that was the chosen form of lighting on the bridge, thanks to a gas works in the town.
When the toll collecting eventually stopped, the Toll House could have been razed to the ground as a redundant structure. But thankfully this charming little build was sold to a Miss Beaty on the condition that it would not be used as a business, but only as a private residence. It remains in place today.
> Additional information courtesy of Newport Pagnell Historical Society: mkheritage.org.uk/nphs
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