Bath is famed for many architectural delights, the Royal Crescent, the Abbey, Roman Baths and many Regency style building. Perhaps less known, yet equally important, is the Pulteney Bridge. Built in 1769 by Robert Adams, it is lined on both sides by shops, and one of only a few bridges in the world to have such features.
However the bridge seen today is not the original one Adams built. His design was influenced by the Palladian style, which in turn has its origins in the concepts created by Italian Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio copied the styles of Greek and Roman architects. In Britain there was a brief spell of Palladianism cut short by the Civil War before a revival in the early 18th Century. Symmetry features heavily, which works well with bridges.
The bridge Adams built was named after a wealthy family in the area who had estates across the River Avon from city. The area could only be reached by ferry. The Pulteney family were keen to develop a new suburb on their side of river, and a bridge was needed. It cost £11,000 to build, similar to a million or so in today’s money.
Twenty years later, the bridge with its shops, was damaged by floods. The bridge was widened to 18 metres, the original sixteen shops converted into six larger ones. Further floods in 1799 destroyed the shops on the north side of the bridge. Thomas Telford wanted to replace the bridge with a cast iron single span, but the surveyor to the Pulteney estate reused the Adams design, although less ambitious in execution. The appearance of shops was changed especially the windows and cantilevers were added to extend the shops over the river on the north side.
The symmetry of Adam’s design remains in the three equal arches visible on the southern aspect.
What Adams envisaged was the elegance of the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte di Rialto in Florence and Venice. But actually he was not the who imitated the idea. It was Thomas Paty, the man behind the Bristol Bridge (who took over after James Bridges resigned) who thought of having a modest two shops at each end. Bad weather ended construction, and Robert Adams with his grander plan took over. It was probably a good thing since Adam’s bridges was considerably wider than Paty’s nine metres which was unlikely to provide sufficient space for shops or survive as it is into the Modern era.
In 1936 the bridge was designated an ancient monument, adding to the city’s growing list of protected buildings.
One final construction took place in 1972 when a weir was added as part of a flood prevention scheme. The V shaped weir might be recognisable to those who have watched the film version of Les Miserables. It is the scene of Javier’s suicide. Perhaps the bridge should be better remembered for being Palladian rather than a scene of misery.