There aren’t so many bridges about which a poem has been composed by one of the country’s most famous poets. Yet such an accolade has been afforded to the Humber Bridge, one of Britain’ finest, if most overlooked, modern bridges.
Bridge for the Living was written by Philip Larkin, himself a resident of nearby Hull for many years. It is, admittedly, a commission piece rather springing spontaneously from Larkin’s own imagination, but is no less a work for that, reflecting the way bridges can open up new opportunities in our lives, even as they work radical change on their surroundings.
You can listen to it being read by actor Sir Tom Courtenay (born in Hull) here, accompanying a film by Dave Lee:
The Humber Bridge opened in 1981, but the idea had been around for years. The Humber Bridge Act was passed as early as 1959, empowering the newly created Humber Bridge Board to construct a crossing over the Humber Estuary, with the minor problem that the Act withheld any ability on the part of the Board to raise the necessary money.
Inter-war studies had established that the shifting bed of the estuary, and the continually changing navigable course through it, would require the minimum number of piers to be built on the river bed. A single-span suspension bridge would provide an acceptable solution, with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge providing inspiration.
It took until the late 1960s and plans for a reorganisation of local government before the national government’s interest in local economic development provided the impetus for construction of the bridge. At the time, the Humber marked the boundary between the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire on one side, and Lincolnshire on the other. Under government plans, it would instead be at the heart of the entirely artificial county of Humberside. A 1969 report suggested that the bridge would promote economic development within this new area.
In 1971, the government granted money to the Humber Bridge Board to allow construction to commence in 1973. Humberside officially came into being in 1974, a vastly unpopular creation the abolition of which was called for as soon as it was created.
The Humber was the last of England’s great estuaries to be bridged (or tunnelled under). The fact that the bridge’s official website refers to it opening up links between “two previously remote and insular areas of England” perhaps goes some way to explaining why this was. Although the city of Hull was keen on the new bridge, and the improved communication links it would bring, perhaps the burghers of Scunthorpe and Grimsby had more difficulty in understanding the attraction of the area north of the river.
Consulting engineers on the Humber Bridge were Freeman, Fox & Partners, a company which already had the Severn Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge under its belt. R E Slater was retained as consulting architect. It is partly because of his input into the appearance of the bridge that it was listed at Grade I (the highest category possible) by statutory heritage body Historic England in 2017, coinciding with Hull’s year-long role as the UK City of Culture.
Slater was responsible for design features which were intended to improve the bridge’s aesthetics. He suggested the rounded corners on the bridge’s legs and portal beams, and designed the inclined concrete ribs and detailing on the anchorages at either end of the suspension cables. Unlike the Severn Bridge and Forth Road Bridge (and indeed the Golden Gate Bridge), the Humber Bridge’s towers are made of reinforced concrete rather than steel, the first time this material had been used on a bridge of such scale. Despite concrete’s not always stellar reputation, the concrete crossbeams of the Humber Bridge’s towers in particular are noticeably more slender and delicate than those of the Severn Bridge, for instance.
It is a noteworthy bridge in many other ways. When built, the Humber Bridge’s main span of 1,440m was the longest suspended single span in the world and it remains in the top 10 longest worldwide to this day. Its towers are 155.5m tall, measured from the piers on which they stand, and the roadway is held 30m over the river below, allowing the unrestricted passage of river traffic below. Unusually for such a long bridge, pedestrian access is allowed, and it is the longest such bridge open to walkers and cyclists. The bridge can withstand constant wind speeds of 105mph at deck level without damage and 155mph at the top of the towers, though you wouldn’t want to be a pedestrian walking across the bridge on a day like that.
Its opening ceremony in 1981 was marked by the performance of Larkin’s poem, set to music by composer Anthony Hedges. Unfortunately, Hedges’ commission was for a 20-minute piece of music, and Larkin’s poem ran to only 40 lines. Might he consider adding a few more? Hedges enquired. Not a chance – Larkin considered the poem complete. He had no more to say, and anyway it was already one of his longer poems. So Hedges was forced into writing a lengthy opening section, based on just the first two words of Larkin’s poem. The entire piece, Hedges’ music and Larkin’s words, can be heard here:
The Humber Bridge has had a significant impact on the cultural lives of the people who live around it, long outliving the county of Humberside (replaced in 1996 with several unitary authorities) it was originally designed to empower. In addition to its commemoration in Larkin and Hedges’ Bridge for the Living, it formed the basis of a piece of installation art in 2017, for Hull’s year as UK City of Culture. The ambient sounds of the bridge itself – “like a harp; the song / Sharp from the east, sun-throated from the west” as Larkin put it – were recorded to form part of Opera North’s musical piece Height of the Reeds, designed to be listed to on headphones while listeners walked across the bridge. Here’s the trailer for it:
Earlier this month, the “motoring experts” of car leasing company Leasecar.uk named the Humber Bridge amongst the top 10 most scenic drives in the UK, in a list which only the most cynical commentators might suggest was plucked from thin air in an effort to ensure some free coverage of their business in local newspapers around the country.
It is a bridge that provokes strange passions, and even stranger behaviour. A Barnetby man built a two-metre model of it out of matchsticks. A YouTube “prankster” was fined £400 after filming himself and others climbing it. And car drivers made more than 100 dangerous driving manoeuvres on and around it in less than five months during 2017, making u-turns and reversing out of lanes, confused over the toll arrangements.
“Request a room with a view and wake up to the serenity of the Humber estuary and the iconic Humber Bridge, leaving you in no doubt where you are,” recommends the owner of the recently-refurbished Country Park hotel in Hessle, suggesting a concerning trend among the hotel’s guests for having no idea of their whereabouts or which hotel they have booked into.
The biggest complaint levelled at the Humber Bridge is the existence of its tolls, levied by the Humber Bridge Board to pay back construction costs and finance operation of the bridge. Users (£1.50 per car) have been calling for the tolls to be scrapped, the government having done so for those on the Severn crossings between England and Wales (they’ll be removed by the end if this year). Although the Humber Bridge’s tolls were cut in 2012 when the government wrote off nearly half of the debt accumulated by the Humber Bridge Board, the fact that they remain at all is a cause of considerable local upset. The government seems disinclined to explore the issue further though, referring local MPs back to the Humber Bridge Board. The Board says that servicing the remaining debt, along with maintenance and operation costs, requires the continued levy of tolls.
You don’t have to be a toll-paying road user or even a pedestrian (no tolls for walkers) to experience the thrill of the Humber Bridge’s vast scale, either. An entirely different perspective can be obtained from trains between Hull and Selby, which pass underneath the bridge on the Humber’s north bank at Hessle, from where the bridge’s astonishing length can be appreciated. Larkin’s “swallow-fall and rise of one plain line” remains as impressive today as it did when those words were set to music 36 years ago.
How to find the Humber Bridge
Bibliography and further reading
The Humber Bridge official website, here
Historic England’s listing citation for the Humber Bridge, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.