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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 16:14 GMT
A bridge too high
Norman Foster's bridge at Millau

By David Cannadine

David Cannadine

Bridges are a powerful metaphor for how people can be brought together, but they can also engender fear and anxiety... and not just among those who suffer from vertigo.

In February this year, one of the most beautiful and breathtaking bridges [pictured above] yet built was opened at Millau, on the southern edge of France's Massif Central, where the new A75 motorway vaults across the spectacular Tarn gorge.

The bridge, designed by Norman Foster, is 2.5km long, and at its highest point is 270m above the valley floor, which makes it higher than the Eiffel Tower, and the tallest bridge in the world. The roadway is supported on slender concrete columns, and is suspended from steel pylons. The result is both an engineering marvel and a work of exceptional beauty - a latter-day wonder of the world, that looks from a distance as though it's flying across the valley, carrying a roadway that seems so light as to be almost ethereal.

Forgive this slightly purple passage: but I've been fascinated by bridges ever since I was young. Like many of my contemporaries, I collected tea cards, but since I was no good at team games that involved kicking or hitting moving balls, pictures of footballers or cricketers didn't interest me very much.

But there was one set of these cards by which I was immediately enthralled. They came with Typhoo Tea, and I can still vividly recall the designs of the packet in black and white and grey and red, with their fancy and elaborate lettering. I think Typhoo was rather down-market brand of tea at that time, because it didn't provide the elaborately-coloured cards which came with other, more superior brands. Instead, I remember having to cut out the cards from one side of the packets, which invariably meant that they were rather dog eared; and their colours were confined to the Typhoo trade marks of red and white and black and grey.

But I didn't care, because these tea cards that I came to covet were pictures of bridges - road bridges, rail bridges, arched bridges, suspension bridges, cantilevered bridges. And so, for me, began a fascination with these varied and extraordinary creations that has been life-long.

I remember being quite impressed by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, by the Forth Bridge and by the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol (Brunel has always been a great hero of mine). But I was most captivated by the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, then the longest single span structure of is kind in the world, and I learned up its vital statistics (in feet not in meters) which I can remember and recite to this day, to anyone who is interested, and to anyone who (more likely) is not. The two red, art deco towers were 746ft high. The single central span was 4,200ft long. And it was carried 120ft above the water.

One of the reasons I soon conceived the ambition of getting to the United States was so that I could see and marvel at this astonishing structure first-hand, and during the summer of 1974, I finally got to do just that.

Molten fire

After spending a year as a graduate student at Princeton University, I took some time off to travel around America before returning to Britain. I reached San Francisco on a warm, humid Saturday evening. The sun was going down, and as it did so, its setting rays lit up the Golden Gate Bridge, which seemed to be made, not so much of steel and concrete, but of molten fire and shimmering flame. It was a sight that I have never forgotten, and during my stay in the Bay Area, I became even better acquainted with the bridge, by walking both ways across it - something which it would be impossible for me to do now.

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, which is painted in "international orange"
The Golden Gate Bridge had been opened in 1937, and it was one of a whole new generation of American bridges, built during the inter-war years, that spanned longer distances than ever before - among them the Golden Gate's near neighbour, the Oakland Bay Bridge, and the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River in New York.

Quite by chance, the early 1960s, when I was growing up, was another vintage period for bridge building, not only in the United States, but in Britain, too. The suspension bridges across the River Severn and the Firth of Forth both date from just this time, as does the Verazzano Narrows Bridge in New York, which set a new world record for the longest single span. I remember feeling rather upset that the Golden Gate was no longer the champion bridge that had captured my youthful imagination.

While I was still at the tea card collecting stage, I think I had already worked out some reasons why I found bridges so fascinating. To begin with, they were a remarkable combination of the practical and the poetic, the utilitarian and the aspirational.

In one guise, they were astonishing feats of engineering and construction, spanning chasms and rivers and gorges and inlets, and defying both geography and gravity in so doing. But they were also astonishingly beautiful things, leaping and soaring onwards and upwards, in audacious testimony to man's unconquerable spirit. By comparison, I have always felt rather sorry for tunnels: great engineering marvels, to be sure, whether through mountains, or beneath the river- or sea-bed, but earth bound and claustrophobic rather than uplifting and panoramic.

As I got older, I began to think about bridges in another way - not just as technical marvels and beautiful structures, but also as active agents for human good. By breaking down natural barriers to human interaction, bridges bring people and places together which otherwise would be kept apart. "Only connect" was EM Forster's famously inscrutable epigraph to his novel Howard's End, and bridges are among the greatest connectors that we have.


Walls separate humanity, but bridges bring humanity together. Ronald Reagan was right in challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall; but it's only in wartime that bridges are deliberately destroyed. In 1993, the historic single arch Mostar bridge in Bosnia-Herzegovina was blown up during the bitter fighting between Muslims and Croats. It was subsequently restored at a cost of $13m, and its re-opening in July last year was rightly seen as symbolic of the reconciliation between previously warring peoples.

The Forth Bridge near Edinburgh
The Forth Bridge near Edinburgh
So bridges have always seemed to me to be good things, as well as functional and beautiful things. But there is also a more sinister side to them. They can be regarded as the aggressive agents of imperial dominion, which deliberately assert the technological superiority of one people over another - as in the case of the great Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, in southern France, or the single span with which the British bridged the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls. And they can also engender fear and anxiety.

For while bridges defy Mother Nature, she can and sometimes does retaliate. Just occasionally, bridges fall down. In Scotland, the Tay Bridge famously collapsed during a violent storm in late December 1879, as a train was going over, and more than 70 passengers plunged to their deaths in the murky waters below. And in 1940, the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge was destroyed in Washington State in America, its deck buckled and twisted and broken by the wind, which earned it the nickname Galloping Gertie.

Bridges, then, inspire both admiration and astonishment on the one side, and feelings of terror and fear on the other. In this sense, to borrow a word and a concept from Edmund Burke, they are structures that may very properly be called sublime. But for me, as I have grown older, terror and fear have increasingly and unhappily won out over awe and wonder.

These days, I rarely drive over one of these great and graceful structures, and when I do, I perspire profusely, I grip the steering wheel in white knuckled panic, I daren't take my eyes off the road to look at the view, and my wife tries vainly to make distracting conversation. The few brief minutes it takes to cross seem an eternity of torment, and I need something far stronger than a cup of Typhoo tea to revive me when I get to the other side.

And the reason for this pitiful display of fear and distress? I, who so love bridges, now suffer from vertigo. There will be no more walks across the Golden Gate for me or over any of those even longer structures about to be built.

Only last month, the Italian government authorized the construction of a new monster bridge, nearly 4km long, spanning the Straits of Messina, and linking Sicily to the mainland. Work should start next year, and the bridge should be completed in 2012. I eagerly look forward to going to see it, but I shudder at the thought of driving across it.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I have realised over the last few years that I too unfortunately suffer from vertigo. My particular fear is not necessarily heights though, it's edges! For instance I would'nt be in the least bothered by flying a hang glider off a hill, but have been very bothered about edging up to a railing at say 'Taft Point' in Yosemite Valley, with a drop of near 3000ft below. I've jumped 30ft into a river while white water rafting, but wouldn't contemplate bungy jumping at all. Vertigo is a very funny thing and I can quite understand the authors comments on driving across bridges!!!
Myke Duncan., Worksop

Thanks, Mr.Cannadine, for a captivating and thought-provoking article. It's about time someone took a few moments to wax philosophical about something that brings people together. There's another unsung bridge-type hero I'm in love with: elevated railways. We still have miles and miles of them in New York City. Each line has its own particular story, the stations are constructed in all kinds of architectural styles, and you can really get a feel for the city and its diversity as the trains roar across them, sewing up every conceivable cultural, social and economic divide, delivering people from all walks of life to their destinations. A world tour for two bucks, a bargain in any season, but especially beautiful at the moment - as the city's buildings and trees glisten in the golden hours of early morning or late afternoon in a symphony of autumn crimson and orange.
David Joseph, New York, New York, USA

No mention of the Humber Bridge, undoubtedly the greatest engineering triumph in the UK. Nor have you mentioned the Brooklyn Bridge, which can still be considered an impressive feat of engineering. This bridge was built before "the bends" were understood, instead they called it "caisson's disease". Many men died making that bridge, who would not have done today. All of these pale into insignificance compared to the Panama Canal. 18,000 men died of malaria trying to build it, and something of its size will probably never be built again. The Gatum locks on the atlantic side are still the largest concrete structures in the world.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

Just a note to correct the claim that Norman Foster designed the Millau Viaduct - it was in fact designed by French architect Michele Virlogeux, who has won numerous international design awards for this particular piece of engineering excellence.
Libby Brodhurst, Westbury, Wiltshire

I, for fear of being labelled sad , have kept my love of bridges to myself for years and years. The Brooklyn Bridge was always at the top of my 'to view' list. I managed to get to walk across it in 1999. There is no greater sight than man's creation arching across one of mother nature's creation, whether it be a river, gorge, ravine, or whatever. You can keep your skyscrapers. Bridges will always be infinitely more impressive to me.
Michael Rhodes, South Normanton, Derbyshire

What about the fantastic Humber Bridge? Almost all single span suspension bridges pale in comparison to this, but it has always been firmly sidelined due to its less glamorous location!
Pip, Bingley

I really remember two bridges from driving in Florida on honeymoon. The first was the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys, which felt far too narrow given its surroundings and length. I also remember the Sunshine Skyway in St. Petersburg, a bridge which takes you up on what feels like a giant ramp before bringing you back down again. Neither were particularly enjoyable experiences.
Tony Dobson, Law, Scotland.

Many of us run the Ben Franklin Bridge from New Jersey over to Philadelphia and back early in the morning, and it provides a perspective not found in driving over it. The wind, traffic, trains just underneath, as well as other runners and bicyclists as we look out over the Delaware River at the highest point are both incredible and awe-inspiring.
Candace, New Jersey, US

I once walked the Golden Gate bridge no problem but a few years later I had difficulty with Clifton Suspension bridge. I well sympathize with David Cannadine. I cannot drive on motorways which have become terrifying to me. Driving on them has become a torture. It means I cannot travel about to follow up my interests as I once could.
Dennis Wills, Havant

Thank you so much for this point of view. I have suffered anxiety crossing bridges for years now and was unable to understand why I has developed this fear when I used to love the perspective from the greatest height I could reach whether by climbing on foot, using an elevator or driving. Your programme has been inspirational and helpful. I still have this anxiety that I would rather not have. It makes life difficult, especially living in this city of bridges where, to get about on anything but the tube, one has to cross and re-cross the river. merely driving to my home city of Manchester involves so many crossings of bridges that I had to work out a route that takes me across the minimum. It also takes me through some of the most beautiful countryside in England and I will be glad to tell anyone about it on request. However, David Cannadine's Point of View has made me feel less alone with this phobia and vindicated me a little from my own self-censure. I have tried but I cannot pull myself together. I am doomed for life to stay as close to the ground as I can. Is it possible that we are simply getting older, therefore valuing life more and taking fewer risks? Thanks and regards from a member of your newly set up support group,
Maggie Turner, London

I enjoyed so much of listening to the audio of the text. Now, I have the utmost respect for bridges. The voice of audio is very engaging. Thank you.
Francis siu, detroit Michigan usa

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