Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Swale bridges

"When I was a windy boy and a bit
and the black spit of the chapel fold,
(sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,
the rude owl cried like a telltale tit,
I skipped in a blush as the big girls rolled
ninepin down on the donkey's common,
and on seesaw sunday nights I wooed
whoever I would with my my wicked eyes"........

So began Dylan Thomas's poem "Lament", which has nothing to do with what I'm going to write except the first line, but I liked it.

Amazingly in my short 63 year life time, I have seen three different bridges and three different roads give access to Sheppey from the mainland at just that one current site. When I was a boy and up to the age of thirteen, it was an old and much lower and seemingly rickety bridge made out of cast iron and wood, that clanged and rattled when you went over it in a bus or train, like going over a cattle grid in a car. This bridge was the second one at the site and had replaced the very first one in 1904. It was a lift span type, which to enable ships to pass through saw the whole middle section hinge upright from the Sheppey side. Unfortunately, between 1904and 1929, users still had to pay a toll, as had been the custom since the year dot, but in 1929 the Kent County Council paid the Railway £50,000 as compensation for removing the toll and it has been free ever since.

The narrow road on the Sheppey side, presumably because of the nature of the marshes, never took the direct route that it takes today and snaked its way up to Cowstead corner in almost an "S" shape. Visitors to the Elmley nature reserves approach the farm track entrance on the last remaining stretch of that old Ferry Road. They should, just the once, drive a little way past the entrance on this old road and sample how it used to be. Look at how narrow it was and try and imagine lorries and buses using it as the main highway on and off the Island, and how much better the pace of life would of been in those times.
The down side of the bridge being the only one onto Sheppey was what happened if it was damaged and this happened several times in its lifetime, normally due to being struck by the Swedish pulp-log carrying ships that passed through it to Ridham Dock. One strike by a vessel in 1922 actually saw the bridge out of action for several weeks and the only option then was a reversion back to the old crossing methods of small boats ferrying people across the Swale on foot! But Sheppey people knew no better and when it was working the old bridge and its road was one of its biggest assets and I remember trips off the Island along its meandering route with great fondness.

Time and progress finally caught up with it however and in 1960 the now "old" four-poster bridge was opened to huge fanfares and marvelment and the older one demolished. All that remains of where it stood, if you drive to the end of the old remaining piece of road on the Sheppey side, is the sudden ending of the road at the edge of the Swale, and much dwarfed by the height of the "four-poster alongside it. This new bridge also saw the establishment of a much straighter access road either side of it which unfortunately neccessitated the demolishing of the "Lord Nelson" public house to the dismay of many. The pub had been a favourite watering hole for Ridham Dock workers and travellers across the Swale for countless years and had stood, almost on the marsh, just to the left of the old road as you travelled onto Sheppey. In 1960 the then new road went over the site of the pub but many photographs still exist to show it in all its glory.

The new bridge, looked apon almost as the seventh wonder of the world by Sheppey folk at the time of its opening, served the Island really well at first but traffic volumes increased at an alarming rate through the 1980's and 90's and it quickly found itself unable to cope, a situation made worse when there was an accident along its route. Denied access for just a few hours would cause horrendous tail-backs either side and so yet a third bridge and road in my life-time was called for and in 2006 the current Sheppey Bridge was opened but this time with the back up of a seconday route via the four-poster, Sheppey was at last in the modern world.

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