July 2018: The LMS Swingbridge

July 2018: The LMS Swingbridge

As we all await news of the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway and the effect it will have on Oxford, whether north, south, east or west, I am drawn to earlier parallels and transport pressures from the past when the railways came in the mid 19th century. Sitting here at the very heart of our country, two engineering giants Stephenson and Brunel were involved in a battle, London & North Western Railway (LNWR) later London Midlands & Scottish Railway (LMS) against the Great Western Railway, competing east-west and north-south, narrow v. wide gauge.  No natural barrier was too great for them to conquer with their embankments, tunnels, and viaducts, so the crossing the Sheepwash Channel which linked the River Thames and Oxford Canal so that boats could pass through was small.  And they needed to move quickly.  So in 1850 Robert Stephenson designed a low turning bridge, the quickest and cheapest method, designed to be turned open and closed by a team of men working on the railways.  The battle led to not one but two lines and stations being built in Oxford, which remained until 19999, when the magnificent listed Crystal Palace-esque Rewley Road Station was moved to the Buckingham Railway Museum at Quainton to make way for the Said Business School.

And what of the LMS Swingbridge now unused, disconnected and in the words of Network Rail, who still own it ‘surplus to operational requirements’?  But for a few true champions who love the railways it would surely have already been lost.  For in this city of fine buildings and architects, which are the stuff of dreaming spires it is easy for our town heritage to be overlooked.   

Yet perhaps it is the sheer magnificence of the other which makes Oxford’s town heritage so important, something I first became aware of when I was at Oxford Castle and Prison a decade and more ago.  Oxford is so overshadowed by ‘gown’ that unlocking that site’s history with its successful education and schools programme, opening up the site and its history to create a sense of pride in the historic town, outside the university and colleges has shown how important it is, allowing local people to understand, remember and share in their past. 

Today the significance of the LMS Swing Bridge is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, recognised at a national level as the last large hand-operated swing bridge built, and one of only two turning bridges on the Thames, the other London’s Tower Bridge, and the Stephenson designed turning mechanism remains intact.  But it is not saved and appears on the Historic England ‘Buildings at Risk’ register, something OPT have been working to do something about. We make no bones about it, it is the last chance it has got, so that now  Network Rail has agreed to give it to OPT with a pot of money and Historic England and the Railway Heritage Trust have pledged substantial funds we can begin to move forward, and are now talking to specialists who can make the original mechanism work again so that it can turn.

But this now rusting piece of metal is so much more than its physical fabric.  The Swingbridge is a crucial part of our ‘town’s’ history, the place and the structure telling of the changing transport history of Oxford and its surroundings, of the 18th transport developments including the 1790 Oxford Canal before the coming of the railway, and the significant impact it had on Oxford as a city. There are also all the people’sstories which are woven into the fabric of the structure, the great stories of the people involved, not just in its construction, but those whose livelihoods relied on the railways, those who turned the bridge to allow the trains to pass, of the boats to pass, and the stories of their families, living in railway owned properties, and those who used the lines for their industry and leisure.    

This summer we submit a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the remaining monies needed to make this project happen.  We will need to work with many partners and are already talking with the CityCouncil about a Pocket Park and a link into their education work at the Museum of Oxford, which has its own successful project unfolding.  And now we need Oxford people to help. We not only need funding but to get the wider project right.  There is little point doing it simply to save it without maximising the wider benefits.  We need you to tell us what you would like to see, if you would like to be involved, and to know what events, and what stories you would like us to tell.  Please do our survey to be found on Facebook and the OPT website which runs to the end of July and has a £50.00 prize and OPT annual membership for two people .  http://bit.ly/2Swingbridge

So whether any of the infrastructure that will come with any new Expressway will ever create such passion should big roads ever cease to be the thing I doubt, but we will do our best to make sure it does not ruin the place, and alongside work on making the earlier infrastructure of the past, now forlorn, though not unloved, a small success for the future able to tell the story of a earlier and significant part of Oxford’s town history.