Bridge For The Living: 30 Years of the Humber Bridge

A piece I wrote for The Dalesman for the 30th anniversary of the Humber Bridge.

This article appeared in The Dalesman in September 2011.

Humber Bridge from the top of the North tower

Bridge For The Living: 30 years of the Humber Bridge

For anyone living in and around Hull anytime in the past 30 years the Humber Bridge has been an unavoidable addition to their lives. For some it’s integral to their day, for others it’s an adjunct, for many it’s just that big thing they see in the distance, but all who live within view of what was the longest single span bridge on Earth have their own relationship with it.

The bridge was conceived as long ago as the 1930’s but only became a reality in 1966, when Harold Wilson’s government promised its construction to guarantee victory in the Hull North by-election. [Wilson needed every seat he could get to bolster an unworkable parliamentary majority]. At the time Hull was one of the most important ports in Europe and improved connections to the rest of the country were vital to the city’s continuing success. The cod war, however, and consequent decline in Hull’s fishing fortunes meant that by the time the bridge was opened in 1981 it was already being labelled a ‘white elephant’ and many believe it has never impacted on the region in the positive way it was meant to.

Whether it has succeeded or not there’s no denying it’s a breathtaking structure. Approaching it from the West or East on train or along the A63, or from the south up the A15 you see only glimpses of the tower tops until you are within about 3 miles of it; then you are honoured with the full spectacle. The immense towers, zig-zagging cables and arching roadway all become bigger, more impressive and more improbable the closer you get; and crossing it makes the world around seem an incredible place – the wide river, sand banks, shoreline, woods and the distant sea; every part of the vista made more beautiful by the ingenuity of man.

Like many people in Hull I grew up watching the bridge being made. I vividly remember the North tower slowly growing on Hessle foreshore (right at the point where the Wolds start), I remember the little wheely-gig gizmo that ran along the main cables for months on end carrying the 44 thousand miles of steel wire that joined the two towers and I remember the day when the deck section being lifted from a barge in the Humber up to road level decided not to play ball and hung vertically above the river – it seemed like most of the city was on the foreshore that night watching this huge steel box dangle like a conker and hoping to see it drop.

Despite living with a few miles of the bridge my entire life I’ve always had mixed emotions about it – I believe it’s an amazing thing, no doubt, but it hasn’t worked in that it hasn’t brought us closer to the rest of the country and it hasn’t improved the finances of the region. It just stands there looking amazing but adding no other value to our quality of life. Then, a few months ago, I was offered a new perspective – I got to go to the top of the towers.

I was commissioned by the Humber Mouth literary festival to make a short film based on Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Bridge For The Living’ which he wrote to commemorate the opening of the bridge. The poem is very optimistic about the potential of the bridge and I wanted to make a film that mirrored that optimism but also questioned the relevance of the poem now we’ve accrued 30 years of hindsight. I suddenly had to think long and hard about the Humber Bridge and what exactly it means to Hull, East Yorkshire and me.

The current bridge master, an ex-professional abseiler named John Williams, was very accommodating and allowed me a few hours at the top of the North tower, inside one of the box sections and in the anchorage (the room at where all of the cables separate and are embedded into concrete) to gather footage. Health and safety means that few people get to go to the top of the bridge these days so it was a rare privilege. You access the top via a tiny 4 foot by 2 foot elevator inside the tower (how you would be rescued if it broke down I can’t imagine) and when you exit onto the top crossbeam, some 155 metres above the Humber, you get a view unrivalled in the UK. Canary Wharf and a couple of other skyscrapers in London are a bit taller but nowhere else are you so high, so open to the elements and so immediately aware of the immense power of the structure on which you’re standing. The platform is only about 4 metres wide and, while you’re obviously perfectly safe, you feel vulnerable just by virtue of being so high up.

At this height you can see right up and down the Humber, as far as the North Sea to the East, and on a good day you can see Beverley Minster to the North and Lincoln Cathedral to the South, though not on this sunny but hazy day. From this viewpoint the immediate vicinity appears much more industrious than I had previously realised; there are a fair number of vehicles crossing the bridge, a huge amount passing under it on the A63, trains running in and out of Hull every few minutes and even the river seems busy with vessels of all sizes moving in and out of the docks and the marina in Hull and several cargo ships passing under the bridge on their way to and from Goole. With the houses and other buildings small and unmoving below what catches the eye most is the amount of movement happening on and around the bridge – it suddenly and very demonstrably seemed to be that which it was originally intended, a vital part of the transport network, a gateway to elsewhere.

With the controversial increase in tolls and a plan to buy the bridge mooted there has been much debate about the Humber Bridge recently. The 30th anniversary year has seen renewed interest, debate and controversy. For those paying £3 a pop to cross it or the haulage firms forced to pay undeniably excessive toll charges, it casts a much larger financial shadow than a physical one and, without doubt, the stigma of being a white elephant will never disappear until the toll is abolished. Whether it will ever be paid off, whether it will ever be free to cross, whether it should ever have been built at all, I don’t know. What I do know, what this year has taught me is that the Humber Bridge is an underused icon and rather than unifying, it divides. Instead of celebrating and venerating it the people of East Yorkshire seem to be slightly unsure of it, even slightly ashamed. And that is a great but amendable shame.

For my part, I’m going to paraphrase the title of Dr Strangelove and stop worrying and learn to love the bridge. It’s an amazing and beautiful structure and we should have pride in it. Since making the film of ‘Bridge For The Living’ it’s now become an unavoidable part of my life and I keep reminding myself of the last line in Larkin’s poem, which works on for me on both a literal and metaphorical level: ‘Always it is by bridges that we live’.

Dave Lee on the Humber Bridge


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Categories: The Dalesman, Writing


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One Comment on “Bridge For The Living: 30 Years of the Humber Bridge”

  1. HullRePublic
    February 4, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    We thought the film was great work. Resonated with us as locals, but was also beautifully shot and edited. Narration was superb. Keep on keeping on Dave.

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