• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Bailey Bridge at Port Meadow needs to be refurbished


Sep 5, 2022

Thousands of us have walked or cycled across the Bailey Bridge on Oxford’s Port Meadow, but how many realise its history?

This week sees the 75th anniversary of the bridge, which links the Thames Path at Medley with the southern end of the meadow.

This is no ordinary structure. It is a Second World War military bridge designed for rapid construction to cover temporary gaps where bridges had been destroyed.

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It was a highly innovative design by its inventor, Donald Bailey, and made a huge contribution towards ending the war.

It was put together with few parts, like Meccano, very quickly and Army engineers loved it! Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower put it in the top three wartime engineering and technological developments.

It was initially kept a secret, but after D-Day in June 1944, Bailey and his bridge became famous almost overnight.

Headlines such as ‘Wonder bridge secret is out’, ‘One of the greatest inventions’, ‘Triumph of the Bailey Bridge’ and ‘Marvel of the war’ raised its public profile.

When it was realised in late 1940 that the Army did not have a suitable bridge to take new heavy tanks on the offensive, there was panic in military circles.

Fortunately, Mr Bailey, a civilian engineer working for the military’s Experimental Bridging Establishment, was the right man in the right place at the right time.

It took only a year to design, test and produce it – an incredibly rapid timescale.

Oxford Mail:

The design was flawless from the start.

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Port Meadow’s bridge is 100ft long. It was erected on September 7, 1947 to replace a wooden bridge washed away by floods six months earlier, and its installation was watched by several thousand people, including the mayor.

The Oxford Mail published a photograph showing it being carried across the 100ft gap from the meadow on special rollers, the front skeletal part raised to allow for the bridge’s natural sag (this explains why it bounces a little as you go across today!).

Fifty Royal Engineers built and manoeuvred the bridge into place in an hour and three quarters.

An eyewitness recently recalled that at one point “the bridge got stuck and wouldn’t move on its rollers, until a burly sergeant stepped forward and pushed with all his might and the bridge slowly edged into position”. The engineers, and the sergeant, received three cheers at the end!

Today, the bridge looks neglected, but Oxfordshire County Council has confirmed it intends to refurbish it. Earlier this year, the bridge was added to the Oxford Heritage Asset Register.

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Peter Smith, of Arthur Street, Osney, who has been studying the meadow’s military history and has compiled this article, writes: “Next time you walk across this bridge, take a moment to appreciate the simplicity of its design, and imagine it being pushed on its rollers over the water.”

Mr Smith will give an illustrated talk at the City of Oxford Museum in the Town Hall on Wednesday at 1pm, and free talks at the bridge, as part of Oxford Open Doors, on Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 11am.

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This story was written by Andy Ffrench, he joined the team more than 20 years ago and now covers community news across Oxfordshire.

Get in touch with him by emailing: Andy.ffrench@newsquest.co.uk

Follow him on Twitter @OxMailAndyF