Published: 12:00, 21 May 2019
Rochester bridges have provided safe passage over the River Medway for invading Roman hordes, medieval knights and more recently tens of millions of cars. Now, 50 years after its last major overhaul, it's in need of a thorough service. Ed McConnell spoke to Rochester Bridge Trust clerk Sue Threader to find out about the crossings' fascinating history and why the £10.5 million refurbishment presents unique challenges.
When Dick Whittington, the real-life medieval mayor of London, donated the then princely sum of £40 towards the upkeep of Rochester Bridge times were, to put it mildly, different.
In today’s money that’s £25,000 and in the 14th century could have paid 10 skilled tradesman for 200 days.
Mr Whittington’s involvement in the bridges’ past is just one fascinating tidbit of information recited by Sue Threader.
It’s difficult to sit through a meeting with the clerk of Rochester Bridge Trust without her enthusiasm rubbing off on you.
She’s responsible for the day-to-day running of three of the bridges which link the town and Strood and is now overseeing the biggest works they’ve undergone for almost 50 years.
The multi-million pound 18-month refurbishment shouldn’t need repeating for at least 30 years and is crucial to the crossings’ and Medway’s future.
Vehicles have crossed them half a billion times since the New Bridge was opened in 1970.
But with the exception of strengthening work in 2000 it, the neighbouring Victorian Old Bridge - which was reconstructed in 1914, and the service bridge which runs in between have remained unchanged ever since.
“We are reaching the point now where they need some more major work,” explained Mrs Threader.
“It’s a bit like the schedule of services you might have with a car – you routinely keep it clean, change the oil and the bulbs, but after a large number of miles, the timing belt needs to be replaced.”
The refurbishment, she says, is an opportunity to go beyond the day-to-day repairs and focus on minor issues before they become major problems.
A recurring dip on Rochester Esplanade, for example, will be trickier to solve than you might expect.
It’s caused by an underground spring which is washing bits of the esplanade’s Victorian foundations away, the result being that every few years workmen have to fill in the gap.
The solution involves connecting the spring with the river through a massive culvert.
Removing the ugly granite which shields the benches at the top of the Esplanade is also on the to-do list. It sits on top of the now blocked off staircase which led down to public toilets before they shut in the 1970s but ironically has become an even more public loo since then and causes a blind spot for motorists.
It’ll be ripped out and recycled elsewhere in the £10.5 million project. The benches will remain as part of a larger seating area.
Elsewhere whole sections need to be re-waterproofed and individual ornate lamp posts need to be handmade by craftsman and decorated with gold leaf.
Other lighting needs to be moved as bizarrely it currently sprouts out of the New Bridge’s handrail, something which is both impractical and contrary to new construction rules.
The fact the Old Bridge is grade II listed complicates the whole process.
It’s not the average project for chosen contractor FM Conway and the need to “keep the bridges open” makes matters more difficult.
In a bid to keep traffic flowing major parts of the work will be undertaken at night and the bridges will be dealt with one at a time, with at least one lane of traffic kept open.
But Mrs Threader acknowledges there’s nothing more frustrating that driving through road works and seeing no activity whatsoever so the project has been scheduled to ensure someone is doing something almost all the time.
She said: “It’s impossible to do it without some disruption, but we want to keep that to a minimum. We hope the public will understand what we’re trying to do an appreciate why it is needed.
“This should be a once in a generation project. I have no intention of doing anything like this again.”
To understand the significance of Rochester's bridges you have to go back 2,000 years.
In AD 43 the bridge likely became the first major river crossing in Britain when Emperor Claudius' army constructed it to aid their advance on Londinium.
Without it Rochester would never have existed, so that's one thing the Romans did for us.
It remained in it's ancient form for 1,300 years until the bitter winter of 1381 froze the River Medway solid, with the resulting thaw washing it away.
That's where Mr Whittington comes in. He was one of many benefactors to help bankroll the construction of a replacement bridge 100 metres upstream.
The project was overseen and funded largely by wealthy knights Sir John de Cobham and Sir Robert Knolles who then set up the Rochester Bridge Trust in 1399.
Royal grants and further donations allowed the trust to build up an impressive portfolio of property and land most of which remains to this day allowing the organisation to fund today's £10.5 million project.
The bridge remained in the same spot until in the 1850s it was deemed an "infernal nuisance" to river traffic and the decision was made to build a cast iron version complete with swinging section on the site of the old Roman crossing.
In the days before buildings were listed the 456-year-old medieval structure was unceremoniously blown up, with the rumble used to build Rochester Esplanade.
After a number of collisions The Old Bridge, as it is now known, was reconstructed by 1914 at a cost of £95,887, with the swing section welded shut.
At the same time a service bridge was installed which is now a key artery serving the Towns with electricity, gas and water.
It was another 56 years until the New Bridge was installed, and bar strengthening in 2000, the crossings have remained unchanged since then.
The first phase of the project centres around drainage and lighting on the New Bridge and Rochester Esplanade.
Until summer the cycleway and footpath will be closed, with pedestrians diverted on to the Old Bridge.
Two lanes of traffic will remain running and vehicles will still be able to turn right on to the esplanade.
On the esplanade a closure was put in place last Tuesday and will remain until spring to enable drainage, river wall and footpath works.
Pedestrians will have to walk on the far side of the road, alongside The Crown pub.
The number of parking spaces next to the esplanade will be reduced during the works, with the aim of keeping at least six open.
Work on the Old Bridge and service bridge will begin in the autumn.