Cambs engineering project is a marvel (and it’s not the busway!)

ST IVES is linked to the outside world by an innovative piece of transport engineering, the longest of its kind in the country.

So let’s give credit to the builders, who constructed it on time and on budget and finished the whole project in just six months.

I’m not talking about the Guided Busway now. Obviously not. But nearly 200 years before the busway another remarkable piece of infrastructure was built at St Ives.

Many people probably don’t notice the New Bridges, the viaduct across the meadows on the southern outskirts of the town. But in its day it was an engineering marvel.

The 15th-century chapel bridge over the river is famous. But travellers crossing it still had to negotiate the flood plain beyond it, which could be impassable under water and mud for weeks at a time.

The road across the meadows was originally on an embankment, with wooden bridges over the worst parts. By the beginning of the 19th century the bridges were in bad repair. Boats sometimes had to be used to carry livestock to the great cattle market at St Ives – and sometimes the boats overturned and cattle were drowned.

So the New Bridges were built in 1822 - very quickly, for fear that flooding might hold it up. Cambridge bricklayer John Turner and his men started work in April and finished in September.

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They’d built the longest brick viaduct in the whole country. This was before the coming of the railways when viaducts became commonplace. The New Bridges have 55 arches and stretch 700 feet.

A few years after they were built they attracted the admiration of Thomas Telford, the greatest civil engineer of the day.

In 1826 he was in St Ives working on the Ouse drainage and got his draftsmen to produce a drawing of the New Bridges. The Bridges had no connection with the project he was working on, so he must have had the drawing made simply to record this remarkable piece of engineering.

A copy of his drawing, more than five feet long, still hangs in the council camber of St Ives Town Hall.