Phil Gillam: Bridge is a link to Shrewsbury's past

It was a small but – I like to think – distinguished gathering.

Phil Gillam and railway enthusiast David Giddins at the reopening of the footbridge
Phil Gillam and railway enthusiast David Giddins at the reopening of the footbridge

And I certainly wasn’t the only one there to feel it was rather like being in a scene from The Railway Children … or (for those whose memories go back a little further) that most charming of Ealing comedies, The Titfield Thunderbolt.

What we really could have done with was a brass band … but I don’t believe the budget stretched to that.

Nevertheless, thanks to the sterling efforts of David Giddins and David Morris from the Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust, and the talented Shrewsbury photographer Lorraine Fletcher, a very English little event took place on Saturday morning.

This was the (unofficial) reopening of the Kemps Eye footbridge that crosses the Hereford railway line, linking Belle Vue to Sutton Park and Reabrook.

A bottle of bubbly, lots of colourful bunting and a modest exhibition telling the story of the bridge all contributed to a memorable event.

For a variety of reasons but mainly due to my often publicly declared love for this bridge, I was asked to say a few words and – as is the tradition on these occasions – cut a ribbon to declare the bridge open.

So, I hear you ask, what’s all this about a reopening?

Well, a few months ago Network Rail closed the bridge and the footpath that approaches it from Kemps Eye Avenue. Then contractors came along and dismantled the structure and took it away.

Some of us were worried that we would never see it again. Others thought the much-admired cast-iron bridge, built in 1914 by E. Finch & Co Ltd, Engineers and Ironfounders of Chepstow. might be replaced by some horrible modern structure.

But happily, and to Network Rail’s credit, the bridge was simply being restored and repainted, and a little while later it reappeared, looking all shiny and rather wonderful.

Why do people love this humble footbridge so much? Well, I can only speak for myself.

So let me now take you back to our nan’s house in Links Road, Belle Vue, in the late 1960s when I would have been 11 or 12.

The talk between the grown-ups (our mum and our nan) could be agitated from time to time, betraying the disappointments of adult life – but from our point of view, the chatter was mostly incredibly boring.

Whenever the conversation between mum and nan dried up, all you could hear in the stillness of the living room was the steady, dependable tick-tock, tick-tock of the handsome highly-polished dark-wood clock up on the wall; a clock crowned with a carved stallion up on its hind legs.

While they went on with their dull talk about the cost of bus fares, we youngsters – my brother and I – would dream of escape. And we’d usually manage to persuade the grown-ups to let us walk over to the footbridge and do some train-spotting.

The bridge itself, with its builder's plate telling us it was constructed in 1914, set our imaginations running. We would try to picture what this scene might have looked like in 1914.

There would have been open countryside on the Kemp's Field side in those days and only a smattering of Victorian housing on the Belle Vue side.

Mighty steam locomotives would have hauled goods and passengers on those lines below. What a sight they would have been!

And there was something else about the year 1914. This too played on my mind as a youngster beginning to learn about the world. It was the year in which the First World War began, a conflict of terrible carnage, and a war in which our Grandad fought.

Holding on to the weather-beaten iron of this bridge gave me a connection. It was like being able to touch history.

In the decades that followed my train-spotting youth, I’ve continued to visit this bridge, and this is why it was such a privilege to be involved in its reopening ceremony on Saturday.

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