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Menai Suspension Bridge, Wales

The Menai Suspension Bridge was constructed in 1828, and was the first large-scale suspension bridge ever constructed. The bridge was part of the effort to provide a London-Dublin Mail Coach service connection after the 1801 Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The most direct route between London and Dublin used the road from London to Holyhead, a port directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin. However, Holyhead was situated on the Isle of Anglesey, separated from the Welsh mainland by the Menai Strait. These developments and factors led to the need for a bridge across the Strait. Because the Strait was also an important passageway for tall ships, not just any bridge would suffice. The situation required a high bridge, one that could only be provided using high suspension towers.

The only original part of the bridge remaining is the stone suspension towers, which are quite distinctive. The towers are tapered, being bulkier at the bottom and narrowing at the top, so much so that they were referred to as the “pyramids” when they were being constructed. The stonework is decorative, with smooth-faced stones on the front and back of the towers and rough-faced stone on the sides and edges. Each tower is bisected at its base by two stone arches through which the roadway passes. The suspension system is a double-eyebar chain that was originally wrought iron but was later replaced by steel. There is an elaborate stone tollhouse on the southern end of the bridge.

Two plaques, one in Welsh and one in English, installed on the side of the tollhouse in 2003 by the Institution of Civil Engineers and American Society of Civil Engineers, provide statistics for the bridge. The deck is 153 high over the water, the total length is 1,388 feet, and the length of the main span, the longest in the world at that time, is 580 feet. The suspended part of the deck is a complex steel-girder truss, with much of the structure extending several feet above the deck and separating the sidewalks on either side from the traffic lanes. This gives the bridge an early Industrial Age appearance.

The importance of the Menai Bridge is recognized by a small park on the northern end, where the bridge passes over the town of Porthaethwy (in Welsh) and Menai Bridge (in English). The park includes a bench overlooking the bridge, a plaque installed by the Institution of Civil Engineers to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Telford, and two large, detailed exhibition plaques installed by the Isle of Anglesey. The bridge even inspired a poem, quoted on one of the plaques:

High fortress above the sea – the world drives

Its vehicles over it.

You, all the ships of the ocean,

Go underneath its chains.

My book, Bridgespotting: A Guide to Bridges that Connect People, Places, and Times, has an extensive discussion of stone tower suspension bridges, of which the Menai Bridge is one of the few surviving examples.

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