Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Hungerford Arcade: H G Wells and the Bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal

Our wonderful author, Stuart Miller-Osborne has written yet another wonderful article - a piece of Hungerford's history.  Our small market town is steeped in history and thanks to Stuart, it is kept alive.  We all learn a little more about our town with each story Stuart writes and we owe him a great deal of gratitude for keeping the history of Hungerford to the fore. Thank you Stuart.

On page one hundred and twenty four of the H.G.Wells' novel The Secret Places of the Heart published in 1922 there is a rather memorable passage which appears to mention the bridge over the canal in our lovely town. 

It concerns a journey that Sir Richmond and Dr Martineau are making towards Avebury and Stonehenge and although short gives a feel of the area at the time.

“They ran through scattered Twyford with its pleasant looking inns and through the commonplace urbanities of Reading, by Newbury and Hungerford’s pretty bridge and up long wooded slopes to Savernake forest, where they found the road heavy and dusty, still in its war-time state, and so down a steep hill to the wide market street which is Marlborough.”

What interested me was the mention of Hungerford’s pretty bridge. Twyford most probably still has hidden away its pleasant looking inns although I think you would be tasked to find them. Reading’s urbanities have in my view become even duller but thankfully the roads in the forest are better and Marlborough and its wide street may have improved with age. 

But what of the pretty bridge, was Mr Wells considering our canal bridge? Well I hope so, as if you sit down and think about it, there must be upwards of twenty bridges in and around the town if you take the railway bridge on Hungerford Common and the railway bridge that crosses the canal not far from Froxfield as your limits.

For such a small town Hungerford does have a large number of bridges. I wonder if any town of a similar size as Hungerford has as many bridges? It would be interesting to find out.

Before it was replaced in the mid-sixties Hungerford had a fine railway bridge and although the current one is quite grand I do not think that Mr Wells would have referred to either as pretty. 

It might be the sturdy bridge at Eddington but for some reason I think Mr Wells meant our small but memorable canal bridge which carries the road over the Kennet and Avon Canal. 

Quite why Sir Richmond and Dr Martineau would have crossed the canal bridge if they were on their way to Marlborough is open to question as to continue along the Bath Road would have been more sensible. Maybe Mr Wells had enjoyed the hospitality of the town on a previous visit.
The Kennet and Avon Canal was opened in sections and in 1798, the link between Kintbury and Hungerford was opened. The Bath Chronicle reported the following;

On Tuesday the ninth instant, a Barge, having on board a staircase of wrought Portland Stone for J. Pearce, Esq., of Chilton Lodge, several casks of Russian tallow, . . . making in the whole about 40 tons weight, was navigated on the Kennet and Avon Canal from Newbury to Hungerford.''

The section from Hungerford to Great Bedwyn was opened the following year and the navigation of the canal was fully open by 1810.

The bridge over the canal apart from one addition looks very much as it did when it was constructed. It reminds me of the canal bridge near my childhood home in Bradford on Avon and like the Bradford one has its own unique echo (try hearing yourself think if the canal ducks get excited).

In common with the Bradford on Avon bridge, it has had a necessary addition that of a pedestrian footbridge to ensure that one does not get squashed by a lorry. But whereas the footbridge in Hungerford is a thing of beauty, the one over the canal in Bradford is an eyesore and spoils the line of the original bridge.

The Hungerford footbridge which cost some £400,000 was put into place in March 2012 and was opened later that year and is called the Jubilee Footbridge for obvious reasons

Both the newer and the original bridge are well worth a look. 

If you are in Hungerford and have visited the Arcade, then the canal is easy to find. Just turn left out of the Arcade and walk under the railway bridge and follow the road. The canal bridge is not too far in front of you and is clearly visible.

The footbridge is on the Wiltshire side of the bridge and like the bridge itself gives wonderful views of Hungerford Wharf and given the right light can result in memorable photographs especially when the sun is low. 

Even on the newer footbridge you can appreciate the beauty of the original bridge with its subtle curves and its soft worn stone.

You can also appreciate both bridges from the adjacent wharf which is a great experience on a warm summer’s day. Or you can walk under the structures and see what I consider to be the darker more mysterious side of the bridge which is not often photographed but shows the detail of its original construction. 

There is also a barge called The Rose which offers leisurely trips along the canal normally to Kintbury and its prices are very reasonable.

Whether H.G.Wells leant over the low wall of the canal bridge and sadly viewed the then derelict canal is open to debate.

But today we can enjoy the restored canal from the vantage of the footbridge or view both the new bridge and its aged parent from the grassy wharf .

Perhaps one might have been lucky enough to have picked up a copy of Mr Wells' novel somewhere in the town. 

Whichever way, the day would have been memorable. 

Stuart Miller-Osborne     

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