The Severn bridges

Leaping across the water in a delicate parabola, as elegantly as a swan-white ballerina executing a grand jeté, the original Severn Bridge remains a thing of beauty. When the Queen did the honours to declare it open on September 8th 1966, the occasion was considered so momentous we were given the day off school. The marvel of engineering between Aust Cliff on the English side and Mathern, ancient seat of the Bishops of Llandaf, on the Welsh side of the mile-wide Severn was at the time the 7th-longest suspension bridge in the world (today it’s 30th) and, in that optimistic, white-heat-of-technology, you’ve-never-had-it-so-good era, it was universally regarded as the harbinger of a new age of modernity and prosperity for south Wales. Little did we know…

Previously there were two ways to traverse the Severn between Wales and England if you wanted to avoid the tortuous 60-mile A48 road via the river’s lowest crossing point at Gloucester: by rail through the 1886 Severn Tunnel or by boat on the Aust Ferry. The Aust Ferry was the final incarnation of an ancient crossing at the Beachley peninsular – a tongue of land forming the eastern edge of the mouth of the River Wye, the greatest of the Severn’s tributaries. The peninsular is a key location in the history of Wales: where the Silures got their first glimpse of the Roman legions pouring across the river in the 1st Century, and the last part of Wales to be seized by the Saxons in the 8th century before Offa’s Dyke was raised between the Wye and the mouth of the River Dee in the north to form the first England/Wales border. From here sailing boats braved the huge tidal range and dangerous currents for centuries until commercial steamboats began operating between Beachley and Aust in 1827.  Superseded by the railways, the service was scrapped in the 1880s but reborn as firstly a ferry for passengers with bikes and motorbikes in 1926 and then as a car ferry with the growth of motoring in 1934. The idiosyncratic and hair-raisingly tricky operation was closed for good the day before the Severn Bridge opened: the slipway and old ferry terminal can still be seen at Beachley and the last surviving ferry boat, the Severn Princess, is being restored as a heritage feature at the start of the Wales Coast Path in Chepstow. On the Aust side the derelict ferry terminal and landing pier are also extant (out-of-bounds but accessible for the daring). This is a place that achieved immortality when photographer Barry Feinstein (1931-2011) snapped Bob Dylan waiting for the Ferry as he travelled between gigs at the Colston Hall, Bristol, and the Capitol Theatre, Cardiff, on his famous 1966 ‘Judas Tour’, the Welsh coastline and the nearly-completed Severn Bridge shimmering like a mirage in the misty background.

The times they were a'changin'

The times they were a-changin’

While it eliminated Aust’s Ferry along with its weather-beaten caff, the Bridge brought a different kind of travellers’ pit-stop: the cliff-top Aust motorway services (now called Severn View services) on the brand new section of the M4 that included the Bridge, fully opened between Tormarton, north of Bath (Junction 18) and Tredegar Park, west of Newport (Junction 28), by 1967. Here another music legend made his mark: Richey Edwards (1967-presumed dead 2008) of the Manic Street Preachers parked his car at Aust services before, probably, jumping to his death in 1995. I say “probably” because rumours persist he’s alive and well in India – 4 real. From the outset the walkways provided for pedestrians, best accessed at Aust, meant the Severn Bridge immediately supplanted the nearby Clifton Suspension Bridge as the favoured jump-off platform for the suicidal – nearly 200 have taken the plunge so far. The Second Severn Crossing would not provide the same facility.

The Ministry of Transport in London originally intended that Tredegar Park would be the western end of the M4, and so it would be for another 10 years (these years were the Golden Age of Hitchhiking when the slip road from Forge Lane was a prime gathering place for hitchers – I only had to lift my thumb and I was off on another free adventure). It took persistent pressure from the Welsh Office, set up in 1965 by the Wilson government, to force the M4’s gradual extension in stages across southern Wales as far as Pont Abraham by 1994 – 20 years have passed and Caerfyrddin’s far pavilions have still not been reached. Because of this bone-marrow reluctance to invest anything in Wales, the M4 went from being a six-laner around Bristol to a minimal four-laner as soon as it hit the Bridge and entered Wales – short-sighted penny-pinching that quickly rendered the Bridge and, particularly, the switchback Newport by-pass, totally inadequate as traffic levels rose exponentially. It’s got so bad that the Welsh government is now planning a new section of motorway south of Newport to by-pass the by-pass. Further shortcomings with the Bridge’s slender infrastructure emerged as early as 1977, when intrinsic weaknesses were discovered in the towers, cables and deck, necessitating perpetual lane closures and weight restrictions, continuing to this day, while strengthening works are carried out. The engineering consortium responsible for the construction and designers Freeman Fox & Partners had not factored in the corrosive effects of the wet climate and the wetter estuary. Nor had they worked out the complex aerodynamics of either the funnelling estuary or the sucking vortices created by the towers, so bans on high-sided vehicles became routine whenever it blew much more than a strong breeze. The worst problem of all could also have been predicted: the tolls.

Ah…the Severn Bridge tolls…I feel my blood pressure rising already. But actually I shouldn’t moan: those blasted tolls have been the main outlet for what little remains of Wales’ sense of collective grievance for 48 years and counting. It is often forgotten that the complaint has shifted emphasis over time. In the beginning the tolls were collected in both directions and the gripe wasn’t, as now when they’re collected only from westbound traffic, that there was a charge to enter Wales, but that the toll booths were on the English side of the Bridge at Aust, where they still are. When the Second Severn Crossing opened in 1996 its toll booths were placed on the Welsh side at Rogiet, the Department for Transport presumably hoping to silence the Welsh Whinge once and for all. But the switch to westbound-only collection, simultaneously introduced at the Severn Bridge, only gave us Brit-bashers another stick to beat those Whitehall bastards with: now we had to pay an ever-rising flat-rate tax to get into Wales while it was free to go the other way into England. What the boneheads at Westminster failed to grasp, because a Welsh blind-spot is in their DNA, was that Wales and toll-gates have a history, and it would have been both politic and respectful to take account of that history – especially since the purpose of the entire Bridge project was to connect Wales to the UK motorway network, not Bristol. Also forgotten is the fact that the toll originally applied to motorbikes too. It took a mass protest at the Aust tolls in 1989 by hundreds of leather-clad bikers bringing the motorway to a standstill to get it abolished – an object lesson in peaceful public disobedience that went unheeded in Wales until earlier this year when 120 anti-toll activists dressed as Rebecca Rioters walked the Bridge with placards to protest at the continued scandalous tolls on the Severn Bridge: a paradoxical sign that maybe we are growing some balls at last.

The Severn Bridge cost £8 million of public money to build (£130 million at today’s values –  a couple of top quality international footballers), and that £8 million was to be recouped until cleared by means of a flat-rate toll of £0/2s/6d (£2.10p at today’s values) on all vehicles. Had the sworn assurances of the Conservative government that gave the go-ahead for the Bridge in 1960 and the Labour government that saw it through to completion after 1964 been remotely true the Severn Bridge toll would have entirely ceased around 1975 when the £8 million had been more than fully recovered by London. Of course it was all bullshit: the toll remains – the only change being an increase since 1966 in real terms of 300% for cars, 600% for commercial vehicles and 950% for lorries. This money for old rope currently goes straight into the coffers of Severn River Crossing plc, of which more shortly, despite the fact that the Second Severn Crossing three miles downstream, along with the associated new stretch of M4 between Magor and Junction 21, demoted the Severn Bridge and old M4 into the M48, a barely-used dual-carriageway for local Chepstow traffic and access to the Wye valley. In effect, the people of Chepstow, Caldicot and Tintern must pay £6.40 to go home every time they have the temerity to leave south-east Gwent – and all for a Bridge that has been paid for 10 times over even including the endless maintenance costs. Given the corrosion rates already evident, in another 50 years the Severn Bridge could well be abandoned as a redundant white elephant and left to be dismantled by the swirling currents and penetrating Cas-Gwent drizzle…never write off the ferryman.

The unwelcome at the Second Severn Crossing

The unwelcome at Rogiet

I come now to the Second Severn Crossing. In 1996 another royal swept in to cut the red ribbon and intone the inanities: Charles Windsor, the oldest prince in town. Children weren’t given a day off school this time; we were wiser. The Brave New World promised by the first bridge had not materialised. Instead the icy blasts of free market economics had rendered pre-devolution Wales an economic basket-case. And there was no sense of public endeavour to celebrate either: the Crossing was privately-owned by a consortium, the aforementioned Severn River Crossing plc, made up of fat-cat developers John Laing of England and Vinci of France plus Barclays Bank and the Bank of America. In return for building the thing, they were given the Severn Bridge and its toll revenue and guaranteed all the Crossing’s toll revenue until their costs had been recovered. Sound familiar? Yes, it was the same lie as first time round. It cost £380 million to build and that amount was recovered in full as early as 2010 counting car revenue alone. So the answer to when those costs will be recovered is the same as the answer to “how long’s a piece of string?”. The date is forever in the future, first 2008, then 2012, then 2017 and now “the early 2020s”, forever being pushed forward so it never arrives. The justification is the same as with the first bridge, and come to think of it the same as used by rogue landlords to fleece tenants: “maintenance costs”. Meanwhile tolls which started as £3.80 for cars, £7.70 for vans and £11.50 for lorries currently stand at £6.40, £12.80 and £19.20. They are tied to inflation, so in real terms they have risen only slightly – but this has been a most unusual period of very low inflation; just imagine if inflation was in double figures for a few years. It is a cast iron law of economics that price is a real disincentive: these tolls definitely make many think twice before journeying to Wales and many exhaustive studies by the Welsh government have shown how they have a detrimental effect on the Welsh economy. But the UK government is in charge of the matter and it remains deaf to Welsh pleas but very receptive to those of Severn River Crossing’s shareholders. In short, Welsh people have to pay to get into Wales. It seems that Free Trade, the holy writ of the global neo-Con project, must be applied everywhere – except Wales. We remain what we have been these past 500 years: an extractive economy deemed to have no interests of our own, our resources for removal whenever required – straight down the blacktop, gratis, to England.

The tolls keep taking their toll but in other respects the Second Severn Crossing is quite different to the Severn Bridge. Taking a straighter line three miles downstream to the south, it more or less tracks the Severn Tunnel’s route and thus has to cross three miles of water. Designed by architect Ronald Weeks as a cable-stayed bridge over the central shipping channel reached by segmented viaducts sitting on 37 massive piers squatting in the tidal muds, when built it was the 10th-longest cable-stayed bridge in the world (today it’s 68th) and the 46th longest bridge in the world of any type (today it’s 107th). The white edifice matches the Severn Bridge for magnificence but in a more low-slung, chunky and powerful style, accommodating six lanes of traffic plus hard shoulders in a gentle suggestion of a curve from Sudbrook to Severn Beach. The grounded trajectory solved the crosswind issues besetting the Severn Bridge, meaning it can stay open in all but the wildest winds and only dense fog or chunks of ice falling from the cables close it completely. This leviathan has a 200-year life ahead – assuming the planet lasts that long, he added cheerily. By then we might even have covered Severn River Crossing plc’s expenses.

I’ll conclude with a nostalgic look back to 1966. Note the Labour Secretary of State for Wales ingratiating himself to Her Maj: Holyhead’s Cledwyn Hughes (1916-2001), Ynys Môn MP from 1951-1979. He was an important pro-devolution figure within the Labour Party in that period and a patriotic, passionate Welshman (a breed now extinct in the modern Labour party). Why, he was so patriotic he had a map of Wales painted on his face…


Pictures: Barry Feinstein; mattbuck