Saturday, August 01, 2009

Leicester's Bowstring Bridge and De Montfort University

Latest news here.

Last Saturday I wrote about Frog Island and the disappearing remains of the old Great Central railway line through Leicester, inspiring Alex Foster to discover Nottingham Arkwright Street station in the process. That station, incidentally, was built by the contractors Logan & Hemingway, in which my political hero J. W. Logan was a partner.

The Great Central through Leicester returned to the headlines this week with news that the city council wants to demolish the most notable remaining structure. On Friday the Leicester Mercury reported:

Leicester City Council is expected to agree plans to demolish the city's historic Bowstring Bridge in private discussions next week.

A secret report leaked to the Leicester Mercury shows a deal is now in place to help De Montfort University build a swimming pool and sports centre in the West End.

On Monday, the council's cabinet is expected to agree to spend up to £472,000 demolishing the Victorian bridge by January.

It is also thought they will agree to sell the remainder of the viaduct, in Duns Lane, and adjacent land to the university for an initial £1 fee.

And today came a follow-up report in the Mercury:

Leicester City Council leaders said today that they will not publicly discuss proposals to demolish the city's iconic Bowstring Bridge.

The authority maintains that a report showing the costs of selling land and the Duns Lane viaduct to De Montfort University makes it too confidential to talk about in front of the press and public at a meeting of its ruling cabinet on Monday ...

Furious protesters are planning to stand outside the Town Hall before the meeting at 1 pm on Monday to show their anger at being unable to attend.

So I went into Leicester this afternoon to take a look at the bridge myself.

It crosses Braunstone Gate and the River Soar, and next to is one of Leicester's most celebrated pubs, the Pump & Tap, which will also be demolished if the council and university have their way. At present its beer garden extends into the railway arches.

The Bowstring Bridge's Wikipedia page tells its recent. After the Great Central closed in 1969, this stretch of the line was bought by the city council and used for a footpath and cycleway. The council received a Manpower Services Commission grant to engage craftsmen to supervise young people in painting the bridge green and cream.

In 1997 the bridge was closed to the public after the demolition of the Kirby & West dairy. Flickr has a photograph from 1984 showing the buildings that were lost.

Since then the bridge has been left to decay, presumably in the hope that it will become unsafe and make demolition less controversial. Yet someone got on to it earlier this year and lived to post the resultant video on Youtube. Great Central Railway Through Leicester also has some photos taken on the bridge.

Leicester Civic Society has been campaigning against the demolition and there is also a petition to save the bridge on Facebook.

Both are careful to be polite to De Montfort University (we called it Del Monte when I was studying at Leicester University), because they have the money to take on the sort of project the campaigners have in mind.

Walking around Leicester today brought home to me just what a power universities are in many cities now. Whole suburbs are taken over, changing the fabric and the feel of life there. In Leicester, for instance, the area around the Magazine Gateway is currently one big building site.

The "knowledge economy" we hear so much takes a concrete form here, but it should not be at the expense of valuable survivals from earlier episodes in a city's history. The Bowstring Bridge should be saved.


Robert Doyle said...

i) Sneaky comment here which may get read by intended recipient:


Have just tried to leave this on Niles' blog but the arithemtical spam protection defeated me - the sum of 2 + 7 is 9 isn't it - or are geeky enough to pose the questions in hexadecimal?!

I was once told that the reason why the platform canopies at Nottingham (Midland) station now run out short of the trains at the eastern end is because British Rail "recycled" the components to fill the gaps in cover left when the Great Central Bridge was removed in the early 1980s.

In my childhood the enormous bridge spanning Midland station was soot black and gave the whole station an absolutely depressing air - the repainted and reglazed station today is a vast improvement.

Are there any designs for the new bridge - I'm fearful for what NET may have planned. The civil engineering and infrastucture works for the tram have been third rate utilitarian designs (cf the absurdity of Old Market Square where the tram poles are more prominent than any of the features of the relandscaping.

The Council should have refused consent for and forced NET to employ a decent design team.

Robert Doyle said...

2) Jonathan

Apologies for a somewhat lengthy rant from me.

I spluttered when I read the Mercury's description of "the city's iconic Bowstring Bridge"

To paraphrase Hermann Göring *
"Wenn ich ikonisch höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!"

There might be a legitimate campaign against further redevelopment of the Great Central route, so that Sir Edwin Watkin's great vision of European gauge trains running to the north of Englandn through the Channel Tunnel can finally be achieved.

Although sadly, we're unlikely to see Pullman Cars running directly from the great capitals of Europe to Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds with intermediate stops at Leicester and Nottingham Victoria, it could be a high speed international freight route.

But if that comes to pass, we have to accept that it is very unlikely that Braunstone Gate Bridge would pass loading tests for those trains.

I do wonder at the campaign to preserve the remaining chunks of the hideously ugly London extension purely on heritage grounds.

They don't even have the merit of being at the forefront of late 19th century technology, they are just big and clunky.

Although my personal knowledge of the physical remains of the Great Central is confined to Nottingham rather than Leicester, I wonder whether the campaign has more to do with nostalgia for structures that take people back to childhood memories.

For those in their fifties and older of steam trains passing through. For a slightly younger generation of Midlanders in exile like myself, childhood memories of when our home cities were tough, gritty and manufactured real stuff and the canals were empty desolate places with abandoned shopping trolleys and burned out stolen motorcycles rather than style bars.
[Looks at leg for evidence of airgun pellet wound from being fired at by feral youth across abandoned railway sidings while walking along canal path 30 years looking at industrial archaeology thirty years ago. Eh bah gum, those were the days!]

Although I do agree with you about the way that too many universities seem to be given carte blanche to destroy the character of city fringe areas. There is no reason why De Montfort's scheme could be redesigned to keep the Pump and Tap.

* A pedant adds, yes I know it is actually Hanns Johst

Anonymous said...

Let's let English Heritage decide if it's worth preserving - decision on listing imminent.

Anonymous said...

Robert Doyle, most of the thousands of Leicester West End residents who signed the petitions against the bridge demolition are too young to remember steam trains so I think your argument about nostalgia doesn't hold water.

If you want a cynical interpretation how about the idea that residents don't like de Mol University stealing their neighbourhood?

Robert Doyle said...

Oops, my last sentence should have read "There is no reason why De Montfort's scheme couldn't be redesigned to keep the Pump and Tap."

I'd go further and say that it should be redesigned to keep the Pump and Tap, and provide a new function room to replace the viaduct arch.

Anonymous said...

Hi there
I came across some of your pictures of the Bowstring Bridge on Google. I am publishing a booklet of local poems and would like to include photos of local bridges including the Bowstring Bridge and the Upperton Rd Bridge. Are they your own images? If so, would you grant permission for their use? Or can you point me to some open-source images as I haven't been able to find any through Google.

Jonathan Calder said...

Yes, they are my images and you are welcome to use them as long as I get a credit.