The background image is Bridge 55 south of Wootton Wawen. The picture above is Bridge 31, south of Lock 6 at Lapworth..
Of course, bridges have many uses; they carry important transport on networks of roads and rails, they allow farmers to move livestock and also allow the canal towpath to change sides at roving bridges. There are about 70 bridges along the canal. They range in design from those built when work began on digging the canal to quite modern bridges for main roads.
The headline bridges for our canal are the Split bridges. They are a simple solution to what was basically a money-saving scheme. In order to reduce the width of a bridge and make it cheaper it was decided that the towpath would not go underneath the bridge. This created an obvious problem as the horse's towrope could not pass under the bridge either without removing one end from horse or boat. The simple genius solution was to create a gap in the bridge for the rope to slide through. One slight disadvantage was that someone had to carefully feed the rope through the gap. Most of the split bridges are south of Lapworth on the final part of the canal which was built when costs had to be cut to the bone.
A typical one is No 33 across that part of the canal which leads to lock 21 and at the beginning of the Southern section of our canal. It is a kind of roving bridge which takes the towpath to lock 20, the alternative route to the link to the Grand Union Canal. The next bridge at lock 22 is a modern pastiche of the style of the split bridge – but without a gap. This is similar in style to the footbridge at the foot of lock 19. The other split bridges are at various points including Nos 44, 45, 48 and 53. It is interesting to see the use of cast iron in making the railings for these bridges.
To be fair, it must be recognised that the split bridge is not entirely unique to our canal; other single examples are on the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal, Trent and Mersey Canal, Stourbridge Canal, Caldon Canal and the Spon End locks at Smethwick on the BCN. There are even single cantilever bridges with a gap for the towline at Lock 33 at Stoke Prior on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, and Aston locks on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal.
Other novelties on our canal are the lifting bridges or drawbridges. There were four of these, Nos 2, 8, 26 and 28, all on the northern section. No 8 (BD90 1DD) is the most substantial one which carries road traffic; it is electrically operated and has all the modern bells and whistles for protection. Bascule bridges number 26 and 28 are raised with a standard windlass. Bridge No 2 has a place in history as the bridge where Tom Rolt’s boat, Cressy, was obstructed in May 1947 because the bridge had been replaced by a structure which it was not intended to be moved; it could not be simply raised to let the boat pass; British Waterways men had to laboriously jack it up. The full story is in the book “Landscape with Canals” by Rolt. This bridge has now been removed. Also, there were for some time swing bridges across the barge lock and across the arm linking the two commercial basins in what is now Bancroft Gardens in Stratford.
The footbridge across the end of the barge lock, No 56 into the river, has had a chequered history. The area now known as Bancroft Gardens was a busy wharf area where goods were loaded and unloaded. In early days there was a swing tramway bridge across the lock but this was in disrepair by 1904; it was replaced by a fixed bridge but this again was replaced by a lower fixed bridge in 1934. Prior to reopening in 1964 David Hutchings designed a bridge in the style of a split bridge (without a gap) which was built at Winson Green Gaol and erected just below the bottom lock gate. Controversially, this was replaced by a wider curved bridge in 2008, perhaps more suited to use by tourists for gongoozling. David’s bridge is believed to be in store with the Avon Navigation Trust awaiting a new life and location.
Many diamond-shaped weight limit signs were erected at bridges by the GWR. An example is at Bridge 33 by lock 14 at Lapworth.
Bridge No 40 was a railway bridge which was abandoned, and the bridge has been demolished.
The most significant new bridges in recent times have been the ones which carry the M40 and M42 motorways across the canal.