Solving mystery of Banbury’s disappearing aluminium canal bridge

THE Oxford Canal reached Banbury from Coventry in 1778. Twelve years later it was extended to Oxford and a vital connection was made between the Grand Union and the Thames Navigation.

Since then bridges have seldom been long out of the news. Local newspapers headlines have highlighted this fact and since 1990 include ‘Bridge to be named after man who helped preserve canals’ (Tom Rolt) and ‘Canal bridge brick row’ (near Mill Lane at Castle Quay).

Until the 1950s crossings of the Oxford were achieved either by timber drawbridges or through the use of stone, possibly facilitated by the availability of raw material, especially south of Banbury.

Then out of the blue so far as most people were concerned an aluminium bridge appeared north of the town and close to what is now the Kraft Foods factory. This was the outcome of some research at the aluminium works and under the direction of Ron Marchington. He and some Alcan apprentices wanted to test the effects of weather on the metal and to do so in a practical way. If it withstood the elements successfully there were many possible applications within the house building industry.

The bridge remained in place some 30 years but then in the mid 1980s the construction of Hennef Way meant that it was no longer needed. Regular users of the Oxford Canal would have noted its disappearance but been unaware of the action by British Alcan that ensured the bridge continued to have a useful life.

My information to this effect is only recently acquired as a result of an email from the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust forwarded to me by Mervyn Harvey. Mervyn had been following the TV series of canal walks with Julia Bradbury. The programme, set on the Kennet and Avon, contained a shot of a bridge thought to be near Bradford on Avon that looked familiar.

What attracted his attention was that it was clearly made of metal. ‘The design struck me instantly, it was not unlike one that we had in Banbury’ wrote Mervyn. He had been employed by Alcan Extrusions and knew that there was need to replace a traditional wooden bridge that had become dangerous. The location was a narrow lane which provided a shortcut for a considerable quantity of traffic. When the time came for the aluminium construction to be removed because the course of the canal was adjusted it was most likely that the bridge would become scrap and subject to re-melt or, as the case proved, donated to the Kennet and Avon Trust.

Response to his email came from Jeremy Hogwood, Kennet and Avon Trust Archivist. This confirmed what Mervyn had suspected and referred him to an article published in The Butty (K & A Canal Trust’s magazine for December 1985). This told the story of the bridge’s previous existence and went on to explain how it had replaced a masonry arch bridge where the Somerset Coal Canal joined the Kennet and Avon at Dundas. A local landowner Tim Wheeldon had made available a few hundred yards of the Somerset so that boat moorings could be provided. In conclusion Jeremy recalled another aluminium structure across the lock at Gloucester. Apparently every summer this jammed on a regular basis due to thermal expansion and had to be cooled down by the fire brigade before it would work again. Interestingly the Banbury bridge at Dundas did not cause the same problem. Instead it acted as a towpath and so enjoyed a gentle retirement after so many years of pounding by heavy traffic at Banbury.

When the bridge was built enthusiasts were fighting to keep the canal open. In the Oxford Mail for Wednesday, October 28 1953, W.H. Black in a feature article about the Oxford Canal provided one reason. It began ‘There is one ground on which a plea must be made to save the canal. It is beautiful’.

n I am grateful to the following for help received: Mervyn Harvey, Jeremy Hogwood (Kennet and Avon Archivist), Alan Sargeant and Matthew Armitage.