Newport Transporter Bridge

Wales is wet.  Those of us who live in the Westcountry know that the usual wind is from the Atlantic, bringing us the humid vitality of the tropics, occasionally the fractious end of a hurricane. Once it thunders up the cliffs, over the hedgerows and on up to the moors, pushing the dampness high into the atmosphere, it’s time to run for it.

Today’s shelter is that of the winding house for the transporter bridge, an ornamental pavilion over the road – delicate enough with a finial along the roofline and elevated views over the crossing, but bolted to a mighty iron frame so not to belie the 70 horsepower within, a pair of motors to wind miles of cable over the river Usk.

We had thought it was just a patch of misty murk approaching from the channel, but it was a heavy downpour, so we were very grateful for this cover – not much else around the marshes and light industry.  Above the pelting of raindrops on the tarmac ahead rises a whirring, elevating in pitch to a top note held for some minutes as the platform of the bridge comes gliding towards us out of the murk, then falling away to its tonic note as it comes to a halt at the end of the tarmac, behind a pair of gates as ornamented as the winding house overhead, a rhythm of railings, finials and swan necks.

There are shelters on the gondola, the suspended platform wound to and fro across the Usk, so as soon as the chap has opened the gates we make a dash for it.  We are the only passengers, so once the gates are secured again, he comes to chat as we pay our fares. 

“Are you lads coming back over today?  There’s only one more crossing to the east bank before we finish.”

Well, we have an idea this bridge was built to save workers at the steel mill a four mile walk from one side of the river to the other, and although there is another, more modern bridge within eyesight upriver, the conductor knows we’re here for the thrill of the ride, the thrill of the steel cables racing 200ft into the air, the genteel three minutes gliding over the water with finials as an eyecatcher in every view, except towards the generating plant downriver.  We’d be foolish not to have a second hit.

It’s like a wet day at the seaside – sitting by ourselves on a bench under the shelter, the dripping dagger boards gayly framing our view of the water, and of the conductor, staring out like a lonely ice cream seller.  But here it’s not the waves coming back and forth hypnotically toward us, a daydream of grey birds and grey boats in dimensionless greyness: we’re flying over the water with all our wits enthralled and the tides coming and going at right angles beneath us – not a chanced view between scots pines on a languid summer’s afternoon, artfully arranged by the landscaper when the tree was still a sapling, but a fearless scene animated for us by the man in the winding house, leaning on the rubber ball of the control stick, the needle of the ammeter delivering current to the motors mirroring our excitement.

“You can have a look in the museum on the other side if you like – we’ll be coming back in about ten minutes – I’ll give you a shout.”

He puts our fares into a leather bag, so worn that the leather has lost its shine and is splitting in places.  Don’t want to lose my 50p down through the floorboards of the gondola.  There is another ornamental structure on the gondola, a minaret looking down out over operations, but the conductor stays on the deck, sheltering with us. Perhaps on busier days, with motor cars two abreast, someone sits up there, watching for when handbrakes are on, the bolts dropped on the gates, and can call across the water to the winding house to fire up the motors.

The museum is a single room, watched over by an attendant from behind a counter where you can buy various mementos.  I once heard that even on the steps of the temples in ancient Greece there were sellers of mementos – crude clay figurines of the deities within.  It’s not a mug with a silhouette of the bridge that will trigger a memory of this place as I take a sip of strong tea; it’s not a keyring that will bring back smell of the motor room when I unlock my front door.

The scale model of the bridge in a Perspex cabinet is not working.  I press the button, knowing it will cue something other than a little lightbulb and the whir of a paltry little mechanism inside.

“It’s not working at the moment. You should be able to see the way the overhead traveller carries the gondola below. It’s one of only six left working in the world.”

On a table in one corner is a photo album, with 6×4’ prints stuck in and annotated by hand.  There’s a photo of a police van and officers being taken over the Usk  – ‘NATO conference’ says the annotation.  Checking the gondola for bombs before international dignitaries have a ride?  No one in the photo is looking at the finials or the swan necks or the dagger boards.  I guess you wouldn’t be too good at antiterrorism if your attention was held for too long by ornamental ironwork.  It looks like a staged photo – three of the officers are smiling self-consciously and watching the conductor unbolt the gate; two on the other side seem to be sharing a joke at the expense of the photographer, one staring straight into the lens.

On the ride back there is a car waiting – a regular traveller.  There’s no need to show tickets; the conductor knows who we all are.  Perhaps he’ll ask us about the museum.

“You can look up in the motor room if you like.  David’s up there – he’ll answer any questions.”

David’s gazing out over the sinking tide of the Usk.  The motor room is reached by a steep flight of steps with mid-air treads and a security gate with barbed wire half way up.  On a dry day, you can walk all the way up to the top of the bridge, watch the traveller shuttle over, watch police vans, fun runs – those for whom the gentle flickering off the water through the railings is lost in the rapture of tensions and compressions in the towering steelwork, slip to and fro below.

“Alright Dave. Good to go.” Over the walkie-talkie the conductor gives him the ok to send the gondola back over for its final crossing of the day.  Dave is lost in rapture.  He pushes the rubber ball a quarter of a turn and the whirring sound rises from the two great drums beside us.  A spinning shaft, protected by a wire mesh starts rotating, and a pair of cables relay up and down through the roof. As the incoming cable wraps around the drum the raindrops caught on it are thrown off into a drip tray under the drums.

The glint of the copper contacts at the end of the motor can be glimpsed through its chassis, and as the motor brushes collect their current from the spinning shaft, the smell of oil and oxidised metal emerges, an incense for this small chapel. This is three phase electricity, not the kind we are used to in our homes – powering trifling gadgets and side lamps: this is how electricity is made by the giant turbines of the power stations, with voltages gliding up and down in syncopation over three terminals.  These motors have empathy with those turbines in a way that no hairdryer can – this current is not smoothed or simplified or separated: it comes in its raw complexity, swirling curves of voltage that chase each other around a spinning axle, chase the steel cables over the drum, up through the roof and hundreds of feet over the waters of the Usk.

The rain is pelting against the glass as the pitch reaches is shrill climax, the drums and cables a blur.  Dave’s mug of tea sits on the workbench, and it buzzes gently from the vibrations – depicting Torquay seafront, a stylised palm tree, a yacht drifting across the bay, a light swell on the tea.  There’s no one on the last ride over – just the conductor to lock up before heading home.  Hopefully the rain will abate for him – or perhaps he’ll go for a pint with the museum attendant over the road in the hope it eases. Apart from the odd patch of brightness, the sky is dark in all directions.  I reckon it’s set in.

We shelter once more beneath the winding house as Dave locks the security gate and comes down the ladder.

“I hope you lads haven’t got far to go.  You’re on the wrong side for the pub.” He pulls up his hood and walks away into the light industry.  There’s a steady dripping coming down beside me.  I look up – it must be draining from the drip catcher from the cable drum.

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