John Nash was a architect and during the Georgian and Regency periods he designed many buildings in London. He also had spell living in Carmarthen, Wales. At that time, Newport, a city in South Wales on the River Usk, wanted to replace its timber bridge with a stone one. Nash submitted plans in 1791, which are mostly lost. There is however a design for a timber scaffold needed to construct an arch. A single arch, for Nash planned to construct a record breaker – the largest single arch bridge ever constructed.
It wouldn’t have been the first. Twenty miles away is the Pontypridd bridge, built by William Edwards in 1756. Pontypridd’s span was 42 metres, and such was the steepness of its incline it needed a chain and drag system for the wagons and carriages. The purpose of the chain was to relieve the strain on the horse during descent. Nash’s Newport bridge was going to be bigger than its neighbour’s; how big? 86 metres.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the bridge required substantial abutments on the riverbank, and there was the problem of the tide, and although Nash started work on a coffer-dam, the idea was abandoned in 1792. He was a little too ambitious. As it was, he wouldn’t have beaten any records as the Trezzo bridge in Italy (1377-1416) had been the biggest single arched bridge ever built (until the Modern era) with a span of 72 metres.
What replaced the timber bridge in Newport was a modest five arch bridge built by Edwards’s son in 1800, which in turn was widened in 1866. That version of the bridge wasn’t famed for its arches but for Harry Houdini who in 1913 jumped off it with his hand and feet shackled. The escapologist was arrested for obstruction and holding up the traffic due to the watching crowds. This bridge lasted until 1927 when it was replaced.
But although Nash failed to put Newport on the map for his bridge design, there is another that has achieved stardom: the Newport transporter bridge. What is a transporter bridge? It probably has more in common with a cable car, since the deck is suspended, and this platform (gondola) is transported from one side to the other. There are fewer than ten transporter badges operational in the world, and only one of two in Britain (the other is at Teesside). It is essentially a suspended ferry pulled across with cables.
The gondola is propelled from one side to the other, a total distance of 200 metres by electric motors at a speed of 3 metres per second. Why was this unusual design used? The low river banks of Usk meant a traditional bridge would need a long approach to build the necessary height to allow ships to pass under. The French designer Ferdinand Arnodin, is regarded as the inventor of the transporter bridge, having patented the idea in 1887. The Newport bridge was completed in 1906 and has two towers of 73.6 metres. It’s currently closed until 2023 for repairs, but when it opens again, you can cross on the gondola for a small charge or, gulp, climb the towers and walk along the upper deck.