The South West of England: Pt 2 – The Severn Bridges

Heading towards Weston-super-Mare, we passed the most famous route over the Bristol Channel from the city of Bristol and Gloucestershire into Wales. The Severn Bridges, two mighty structures that link both sides of the Channel loomed in the distance…

Severn 1

The Severn Bridge

This is the original bridge to cross the Channel at this point, and was the first major road bridge over the Severn here as previously both a Rail Bridge and a Rail Tunnel had opened in 1879 and 1886 respectively. The Severn Tunnel runs for four miles and carries the mainline Great Western Railway from London into South Wales. The tunnel is located slightly North of the position of the new Severn Bridge. Road users had two options, either making a nearly 60 mile detour around Gloucester into Wales, or using the Aust Ferry, which ran between 1829 and 1966, and was a small car ferry that ran close to the position of the first Severn Bridge.

With traffic growing, a new crossing for the river was needed and ideas were being looked at. It had first been suggested by Thomas Telford in 1824 when he was asked to speed up the mail services from London to Wales, but these plans didn’t progress. It wasn’t until after World War II that a new system of main roads was thought up to be built around the country, and the plans included bridges at certain locations, with the two largest being the Forth Road Bridge across the Forth from Edinburgh to Fife, and the Severn Bridge. The Forth was built first, with the Severn Bridge following in 1961. The whole bridge was finished by 1966, and was built in stages:

1) Substructure – John Howard & Co, completed in 1963.

2) Superstructure – Associated Bridge Builders Ltd, made up of Sir William Arrol & Co, Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company and Dorman Long) which was finished in 1966. The towers stand at 445 feet tall, and the whole bridge is just short of a mile long.

The whole bridge was split into 4 phases, staring with the Aust Viaduct which carries the road towards the first section of the Severn Bridge, which is the main section with the suspension cables. After that the Beachley Viaduct carries the roadway over the similarly named peninsula in Gloucestershire that juts out into the river, underneath the bridge. The final section is the Wye Bridge, which looks like a smaller version of the main bridge, which runs over the river Wye just past the peninsula which marks the border between England and Wales. Most people think that the River Severn is the border between England and Wales, but up until the position of the Severn Bridge, where the Wye joins it and the two become the Severn Estuary, it is merely a river within England.

Both of the bridges are toll bridges, and lead to the bizarre situation of having to pay to drive into Wales, but not back into England. Disabled badge holders do however get free travel over the bridges.

Severn 2

The Second Severn Crossing

This is the newer bridge, intended to take the majority of the traffic away from the older bridge. When it opened, the original bridge carried the M4 Motorway (West for Newport, Cardiff & Swansea, West for Bristol & London). There was so much extra traffic on the roads that by the 1980’s ideas for a new bridge were well underway, and an architect named Ronald Weeks created the new design. Construction started on the Second Severn Crossing in 1992 and took 4 years, finally opening in 1996 with the Prince of Wales, Charles (Born 1948), in attendance. When it opened the M4 was rerouted over the new bridge, and the M4 section of the old bridge was renamed the M48, which connects with the M4 at either end of the bridge. The M4 has a junction with the M5 on the English side of the Bridge, and then continues on towards the M32 (Bristol City Centre) and then out towards London. It also connects with the M49 which leads directly from the Second Severn Crossing towards a more southerly section of the M5, and Avonmouth Docks, part of Bristol, for travellers specifically heading South on the M5 from the bridge.

Again the bridge is split into sections, although this time there are only 3 instead of 4. At either end is a viaduct section, one each for England and Wales, and the main bridge section in the centre. The two towers stand 137 metres tall each, and the overall span of the whole structure amounts to 16,824 feet, of which around 2000 metres accounts for each of the viaduct sections.

These two mighty Bridges are landmarks in the area and its always a joy to fly past them on the motorway, and in my various trips with my Dad towards Cardiff, I have been over both. A good place to stop get much closer views of the Bridges (I got these shots from the car as we passed on the M5) is a place called Severn Beach, located next to the Second Severn Crossing, or Aust near the Severn Bridge, both on the English side. On the Welsh side you could stop at the aforementioned Beachley to take in the views.


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