By Paul Geater
Friday, December 28, 2012
The Orwell bridge is now more than 30 years old. PAUL GEATER remembers its construction and opening.
It’s opening 30 years ago helped transform the town – and today the Orwell Bridge is as vital as ever providing a fast route around the town.
Perhaps its true value to Ipswich only really becomes apparent when something goes wrong – when an accident closes the bridge or lanes are closed for essential maintenance work.
It is then that true value of the bridge becomes clear. Without it, the town quickly becomes gridlocked.
The simple statistics behind the bridge are impressive.
It took three years to build. The total length, including the Wherstead and Nacton approaches, is 1.2 kilometres.
There are 19 sets of supports holding the bridge. There are actually two bridge tables with a gap of a few inches between them.
The bridge expands by two feet at each end during hot weather – there are ingenious springs built into each end to compensate for this.
The bridge cost £24million to build as part of the Ipswich by-pass which extends from Martlesham Heath to the Whitehouse interchange – and the bridge itself took more than three years to build, work started in the autumn of 1979.
Today the bridge continues to evolve – it is carrying more traffic than ever and there are fears it will be operating at capacity, with no slack at any time, by 2015.
But while it becomes busier it has also become home to new wildlife – a family of peregrine falcons has taken up residence. They were the first peregrines to breed in the wild in Suffolk for about 200 years.
EVERYONE who lives or works in the area is familiar with the shape of the Orwell Bridge, but there is a side of it that few have seen and it is difficult to imagine.
The tables – or decks – that the carriageways are built on are not solid. They are hollow and can be accessed by engineers inspecting the bridge.
There are access doors from these open spaces on to the top of each pillar making it easy to check the bearings that hold up the deck.
I was taken inside the bridge back in 2000 when engineers were examining the supports – and what really struck me was the size of the voids under the bridge.
Those at the end of the bridge are large enough to put in a bungalow – as you get towards the centre of
the bridge the voids open up and they are large enough for a small church!
What I noticed during the visit was the emptiness of the place. The echoes around the building were far louder than the noise of traffic above.
At the time there was talk of where should a new skatepark be created – it seemed to me that some of the shapes in the voids under the bridge would be superb for skateboarders. The suggestion did not go down very well with the engineers showing us around!
ONE of my first jobs on The Star back in the summer of 1982 was covering the work as the two sides of the Orwell Bridge inched together.
We had a call from one of the contractors installing the decking inviting us to come to the bridge to see the first span linking the two sides of the bridge placed in position.
The photographer and I were met at the contractors’ compound and taken on to the bridge which was nearly complete with carriageway installed at the end, but as we got nearer and nearer the centre, it narrowed and became increasing scary.
I don’t have a good head for heights and I could not look down, but I made it to the middle and we got some photographs for my feature on bridging the gap.
As soon as the feature was published the next day I was summoned into the news editor’s office. He was an old-school journalist who could be quite intimidating for a young reporter.
He bawled at me: “Who gave you permission to be on the bridge? How did we get those pictures?”
I explained we had been invited by the contractor who was keen to show off of the work.
“The main contractor had not given us permission. You had no right to be there. If anything had happened when you were up there, the bridge contractors wouldn’t have been covered by insurance, we wouldn’t have been covered by insurance, any life insurance you have would not have been valid.”
“But we got some good pictures and a good story,” I protested.
“That’s not the point. Get out of my office,” I was told bluntly – and I didn’t write any more stories about the Orwell Bridge for several years!