The lowest crossing point of the River Usk was probably first at Caerleon where it is thought the river could be forded at low tide.
The River Usk, Caerleon, low tide.
The East to West route descended from Catsash to the river, then proceeded over Lodge Hill to Pill Mawr, over Brynglas Hill, Barrack Hill and Ridgeway.
The first bridge was almost certainly at Caerleon, built during the Roman period.
The timber bridge at Caerleon, 1801, from Coxe's 'Tour In Monmouthshire'.
This shows a high tide. At low tide almost all of the timber uprights would have been visible.
There was a wooden bridge at Caerleon until the early 1800s when the present stone bridge was constructed.
It is thought that fording the river at Newport would not have been possible due to the depth of mud. It is likely that Newport's first bridge - a timber structure - was built soon after the Norman Conquest. The first known written reference to it is in a land grant of 1072-1104, while the first pictures date from the 1700s.
Newport Bridge and Castle 1784 from "The Antiquities of England and Wales" by Francis Grose.
Newport Bridge and Castle late 1700s painted by Paul Sandby.
Image courtesy of Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
It was not easy to construct timber bridges at Newport and Caerleon that could withstand the very large difference between the water levels at high and low tides with the strong currents in both directions. The same conditions existed at the site of Chepstow's bridge and it seems that similar construction techniques were used for all three structures.
Written accounts often speak of the bridges at Newport or Caerleon being in need of repair or rebuilding. At such times it was possible for travellers to use the other bridge to cross the river - though the Caerleon route was not as easy as the gentle descent from Christchurch to Newport via the Newport bridge.
By the end of the 1700s it became obvious that a more substantial and reliable bridge was needed at Newport and designs for a stone bridge were invited by a newly-set-up bridge committee. The winning entry was presented by the architect John Nash, who proposed a bridge with a single span of 285 feet (87m). This would have doubled the span of the existing world-record holder (Pontypridd, 141 feet - 43m). Detailed plans were drawn up and a scale model made. Work commenced... and then stopped. It is not known why this bridge was not built. If it had been completed it would have been an amazing sight, a world landmark... and probably totally useless for any form of transport other than pedestrians due to the height of the centre and the steepness of the ascent and descent!
Our impression of what Nash's bridge could have looked like, with a single span of 285 feet (87m)
- double that of the existing world-record holder (Pontypridd, 141 feet - 43m).
Image based on a print by Pugh (c1806), Nash's original plans for the timber centering
and a scale drawing of Pontypridd Bridge.
It was imperative that a new bridge was built and David Edwards (the son of the builder of the Pontypridd Bridge) was awarded the contract. His five-arched stone bridge was completed in 1801 and stood for 125 years, during which time Newport's population grew from 1000 to 97000.
David Edwards' bridge in 1810.
By 1866 the bridge could not handle the ever-increasing traffic, so to meet the demand it was widened by adding footways either side, supported by girders and cantilevers. The original width of 23 feet (7m) then became the carriageway from kerb to kerb.
Another problem with this crossing, which was not addressed until 1893, was 'the dip'. After coming down the slope of the bridge into Newport the road rose quite steeply for a short distance to cross the canal. This caused difficuly for many a horse drawn vehicle. Just imagine the problems which would have resulted had Nash's bridge been completed!
David Hughes' excellent birds' eye view of Victorian Newport. This shows the cantilevered footpaths and 'the dip'.
The Council invited designs and estimates for a reinforced concrete bridge to replace the 1800 structure in 1911. It would have been a three-spanned bridge with a width between parapets of 60 feet (18m) and 10 foot wide (3m) footpaths. Obviously this was never built, but it demonstrates that the Council were looking to replace the 1800 bridge at least 10 years before building the current bridge…
The present town bridge was opened in 1927. In order to keep traffic flowing while it was built, a temporary timber bridge was constructed alongside the old bridge which could then be demolished to make way for the new one.
The old stone bridge with the temporary wooden bridge alongside. Viewed from the eastern side.
The new bridge with the temporary wooden bridge still alongside. Viewed from the western side.
The new bridge at high and low tides.
In 1906 Newport gained a new bridge even closer to the mouth of the Usk - the Transporter Bridge. Other bridges followed - the George Street Bridge (1964), the 'New City Bridge' on the Southern Distributor Road (2004), and the Newport City Footbridge (2006). However, the bulk of East-West traffic is now carried by the the M4 motorway which crosses the River Usk near the Brynglas Tunnels. Could folk in 1800 ever have imagined the increase in total traffic which then had only the two narrow bridges to cross?
Gray, M. & Morgan, P. [eds] (2009) Gwent County History, vol 3, 1536-1780, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Harrison, D. (2004) The Bridges of Medieval England: Transport and Society 400-1800, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jones, B. P. (1957) From Elizabeth I to Victoria: Newport, Monmouthshire, 1550-1850, Newport Corporation.
Matthews, J. (1910) Historic Newport, Newport: The Williams Press.
Rees, W. (1951) The Charters of the Borough of Newport in Gwynllwg, Newport Public Libraries Committee.
Reeves, A. C. (1979) Newport Lordship, 1317-1536, Univ Microfilms Intl.
Ruddock, T. (1979) Arch Bridges and Their Builders 1735-1835, Cambridge: University Press.
Suggett, R (1995) John Nash: Architect in Wales, RCAHM