The Britannia bridge or Pont Britannia as it is also known was built to join the Isle of Anglesey and mainland of North Wales via the increasing form of travel by rail, a new link between London and the Port of Holyhead by rail was needed. The option of utilizing the already existing Menai Suspension bridge was considered, but deemed unsuitable for use by train.
In 1846 Robert Stephenson, son of railway pioneer George Stephenson was appointed chief engineer and four years later in March 1850 the bridge was completed. It was required that the Menai Strait remained accessible by the tall ships of the day so needed to be built at least 100 feet above the high water mark. Originally the Britannia bridge was a tubular design made out of giant wrought iron tube sections joined together creating a square or box shaped tunnel for the trains to travel through.
The stone towers of the Britannia bridge were built from limestone like its sister bridge the Menai Suspension bridge also brought from Penmon quarry. The original bridge was constructed of wrought iron tubes joined together which were supported by the stone towers. The box sections were built on the shores of the Menai Strait then floated out into position then hoisted into position using very powerful jacks.
Unfortuanately on the evening of 23rd of May 1970 the bridge caught fire when two local boys dropped a burning torch who were believed to be looking for bats. The ceiling of the tubes which were coated in tar caught fire. Due to the height of the bridge and the lack of available water, the local fire service were unable to extinguish the fire and the whole of the tunnel caught fire, from Anglesey to the mainland side. The fire, which eventually burnt itself out left the bridge standing, but the intense heat of the fire had compromised the structural integrity of the iron tubes, and after being closed for nearly eighteen months the bridge was completely rebuilt. The rebuilt bridge looked quite different with steel archways between the stone towers and concrete supports under the approach spans making it look more like a traditional bridge.
With the increase in road traffic and the building of the A55 dual carriage way, the Britannia bridge was to change again and an upper deck was built above the railway line to carry the cars and lorries traveling to and from Anglesey giving the Menai Suspension Bridge a much needed break from heavy traffic.
The Britannia bridge was decorated with four large lions sculptured from limestone by John Thomas (1813-1862). The four lions sit at each corner of the bridge, two on the Anglesey side and two on the mainland side.
Unfortuanately these beautiful lions can only be seen by rail or by walking down under the A55 dual carriage way either from the Carreg Bran hotel in Llanfairpwll on the Anglesey side or from near Treborth village on the Bangor side. There is a campaign to raise the lions so they can be seen from the A55... time will tell.
The Britannia bridge is the only section of the A55 which is a single carriage way, and thus sufferers from congestion during peak times, morning and early evening, which in turn causes a bottleneck at either end of the bridge. In November 2007, a public consultation exercise took place looking into the various ways that congestion could be reduced. Ideas like widening the current bridge or even building a third bridge are currently being looked at.
During the construction of the Britannia bridge many workers lost their life. There is a memorial stone to them in the grave yard at St. Mary's church which lies on the banks of the Menai Strait which is overlooked by the mighty Britannia bridge. Building any bridge is a dangerous task and the health and safety rules around the 1850's would have been no where as strict as in modern times.
Menai Heritage, based in Menai Bridge is a fully accredited museum which has exhibits of artefacts of both the Menai Suspension Bridge built by Thomas Telford and The Britannia Bridge built by Robert Stephenson. This fantastic museum is a fantastic place to visit for both adults and children alike. Menai Heritage - The Bridges Collection
This heritage Centre Celebrates the world-famous bridges over the Menai Strait and is open every Wednesday and Thursday.
We would like to thanks the good people at Menai Heritage in Menai Bridge for information on articles, Photographs and technical data associated with the construction of the Britannia lions.
Copyright ©Tim Snow 2016