“If your bridge succeeds, then mine have all been magnificent failures.”
These were the words of Isambard Kingdom Brunel when he learnt of Robert Stephenson’s plans to construct a tubular bridge across the Menai Straits, Britannia Bridge, which was completed on 5 March 1850.
The bridge was an engineering triumph, with concerns over thermal expansion dealt with by the provision of summer and winter rails at the bridge portals.
On 23 May 1970, some children out on a hunt for birds’ nests entered the tubular bridge, and lit paper to see their way in the dark. In doing so, they accidentally set fire to the canopy of tarred canvas. A major blaze then ensued, with the timber decking within the tubes providing plenty of combustible material.
The reconstruction presented an opportunity to add a road deck and address the issue of increasing road in addition to rail traffic. The towers of the Britannia Bridge had survived the fire and could be reused, but no part of the original tubular structure could be retained (abridged). Read more at All about Anglesey and about the Britannia Bridge at The Victorian Web.
A video from the BBC Wales archive, part of a programme from 1978, some eight years after the blaze, called Let’s Look at Wales: Crossing the Menai, is available here.
Be sure to check out The Menai Heritage, a community project to celebrate the Menai Suspension Bridge and the Britannia Bridge.