Restore Recycle Rebuild?
In Bath much debate has surrounded the recent closure of the Victoria suspension bridge, a river crossing bridge of 1836 linking the Upper and Lower Bristol Roads in Bath. The bridge was declared unsafe after a routine inspection and for a time not only was the bridge out of use but the towpath and even the river itself whilst the structure was fully investigated. In due course the deck of the bridge was supported and restricted use is now possible. The Victoria Bridge was designed by and built for James Dredge a local brewer in 1836. Almost certainly Messrs Stothert supplied the ironwork for a bridge design intended for quick and economic erection using short wrought iron bars, linked together and suspended from Bath Stone piers to support the cast iron deck. The reason for its construction, near to Dredge’s brewery may have been connected with his contract to supply beer to the construction site of the Great Western Railway, passing through nearby Twerton at the time. The design of the bridge was revolutionary enough and others were built – many of which fell down- in other parts of the world. The Bath bridge is the first.
The results of the recent inspection revealed that not only were the iron elements in the structure struggling to take the existing loads but the expected footfall across the bridge when the nearby Western Riverside residential development is complete, would make use of the structure, as it stands, impossible.
A number of options were presented before Bath & North East Somerset given that the retention of the river crossing here was a priority. These included replacement of the bridge – which is a listed structure-with an entirely new footbridge, retention of the bridge out of use and replacement of the original bridge with a replica but using modern steels to take the expected loads with from the new housing development. The final option may be the most likely and it does raise a number of questions regarding the industrial heritage and issues of adaptive reuse. If the original structure is to be replaced (or at least the iron elements of it) what distinguishes it from a fabrication? Would should our response be if original buildings are knocked down and entirely new walls are put up, using material unavailable when the originals were conceived? Needless to say we live in pragmatic times and the determination of those involved to propose the original is replicated is something that we should welcome. However this is a something we must watch if we are not to have many iconic structures swept away to be replaced by complete replicas.