The South West of England: Pt 25 – Saltash, Cornwall

Our next stop was the Cornish town of Saltash, home to the two fantastic landmarks that span the divide between Cornwall and Devon, the Tamar Bridges…


Status: Cornwall Unitary District & County, Town, England

Date: 12/08/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Tamar Road Bridge, Tamar Rail Bridge, Brunel Statue, River Tamar, Union Inn etc

Saltash 1

We pulled up by the riverside, on the North side of the Tamar Road Bridge, which sits in front of the Rail Bridge, which we would move round to later. As soon as we arrived I had a flashback to our visit to North Queensferry in Fife, Scotland, where the Forth Road and Rail bridges arrive from Edinburgh on the other side of the river. The Tamar Bridges, whilst slightly smaller and shorter, are no less spectacular, and I something I had very much been looking forwards to seeing.

The Road Bridge is the newer of the two, and until construction began in 1959, the Rail Bridge stood alone. The Bridge connects Saltash with the Devon city of Plymouth, and before the bridge was built the nearest road crossing for the Tamar was in the village of Gunnislake, nearly 15 miles away. Overall, to cross from Saltash to Plymouth this was a detour of almost 30 miles. In 1961 the Road Bridge was completed, and opened to traffic, providing a direct link between Devon and Cornwall for mainstream traffic. When it opened, it became the longest suspension bridge in the United Kingdom at 335 metres, a title it retained until the Severn Bridge was completed in 1966.

Whilst it was actually opened in 1961, it was officially opened a year later, by HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (1900 – 2002) on the 26th April, 1962. It wasn’t until we walked underneath it however, that we noticed what made the bridge so interesting, at least from an Engineering point of view.

Saltash 2

This is the underside of the Road Bridge, and one was thing was immediately obvious. The Bridge is wider than it should be. A series of cantilevers on either side of the Bridge hold an extra carriageway, easily visible to the naked eye. Some quick research soon told us that the Tamar Road Bridge was in fact the 1st suspension bridge in the world to be widened using cantilevers, back in 2001. This was no mean feat, and it had the overall effect of increasing the number of lanes from 3 to 5. 3 of these are for the A38 (Exeter – Bodmin), 1 is a pedestrian lane and the final one is for local traffic which can dodge around the busier A38 lanes to cross to the other side.

Saltash 3

Reaching the South side of the Rail Bridge, we spotted this rather colourfully painted Pub, called… yep you guessed it, the “Union Inn”. The building must predate at least 1873, as it was before this year that William Odgers (1834 – 1873, a famous Sailor from the town who was awarded a Victoria Cross in 1860 for his bravery and savvy during the 1st Taranaki War between the Maori and the people of New Zealand) retired to Saltash and took over as Landlord of the Inn.

In 1995 the Inn’s signature Union Jack mural across its front facade was painted, to celebrate 50 years since Victory in Europe Day, 1945. It was painted by a man named David Whitley, and despite some opposition after its inception, it has become a well known local landmark, along with the pub itself. On the right hand side wall of the pub is another mural, presumably of events in the towns history, and the message at the bottom of it reads “Burgus de Saltashe et libertas aquae de Thamer” although I am unsure exactly what that means. It just shows what amazing things you can find in the strangest of places, as already we had been distracted from one of the most impressive Rail Bridges in the South of England, by a lovingly painted pub.

Saltash 4

Turning to look at the Rail Bridge itself, we marvelled at its construction, a triumph of Engineering and another piece of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806 – 1859, famous English Engineer) extensive portfolio. It sits alongside his revolutionary SS Great Britain, stunning Clifton Suspension Bridge and perhaps his crowning legacy, the Great Western Railway from London to South Wales/Bristol/Exeter which now runs into Cornwall over this very bridge.

The Bridge is commonly known as the Tamar Rail Bridge, however its official title is in fact the “Royal Albert Bridge”, named after Prince Albert (1819 – 1861) Consort of Queen Victoria, and it was in fact he who officially opened the bridge upon its completion. Construction began in 1848, with a contractor called Charles Mare, who also worked on the Britannia Bridge between Anglesey and the Welsh Mainland, carrying out the work. He eventually went bankrupt a year later, so Hudson & Male took over. By 1857 the Cornish half of the bridge, including the approach pillars and the 1st central span had been completed. The 2nd and final span over to the Devon side was added the following year, with the approach pillars on the Plymouth side finished in 1859. Both central spans are an impressive 455 ft long, with space for a 100 ft tall ship to pass beneath them.

In May of 1859 Albert himself arrived to open the bridge, although unfortunately Brunel was ill and couldn’t attend. Tragically Brunel passed away just a few months later in September, so a slight addition was made to the Bridge. Above either end of the bridge as you enter one of the central spans from either Devon or Cornwall you will spot the words “I.K. Brunel, Engineering, 1859”.

You can just see them on the picture above, at the far left where the Cornish span begins. Various upgrades have been carried out since 1859, with the track being replaced with Standard Gauge in 1892, and the replacing of some of the small spans between the landward pillars being added at the start of the 20th century to allow wider trains to cross. It’s a marvel of Engineering, and one of a series of incredible railway bridges across the country, including the Forth Bridge, Britannia Bridge, Tay Bridge and the various famous rail bridges in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Saltash 5

After admiring the bridges, we caught up with the man himself. A statue of Brunel stands on the riverside not far from the Union Inn, and I pointed out a few interesting features of the bridge to him! We eventually left Brunel to it, and made our way over the Tamar Road Bridge back into Devon, to the caravan we were staying in near Dartmouth.

Thanks to its proximity to Plymouth, Saltash enjoys good transport links. There is a regular bus to and from the city, and the local train station opened in 1859. Trains run South to Penzance via Truro and other main Cornish towns, as well as North/West to Plymouth. Travellers can change at Plymouth for destinations all over the UK as well as ferry services to Mainland Europe, France, Spain etc.

Saltash itself if mainly a small dormitory town for neighbouring Plymouth, yet it still has some incredible landmarks and river views, and it was a fitting place to end our epic road trip from Land’s End, to Penzance, Truro, Fowey, Lostwithiel and Saltash. Despite the day being over, there were many more adventures ahead of us the next day…


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