Site unseen / The Royal Albert Bridge, Cornwall

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The Independent Online
Life is full of firsts. The first step, the first drink, the first cigarette, the first boy/girlfriend, the first driving test, the first ...

An important addition to this list must include the first journey to Cornwall by train. Leaving Exeter, prepare for staggering sights such as the stretch along the sea wall at Dawlish, where the spray batters against the windows and wakes up even the deepest of somniacs.

The rugged terrain ensures that the railway's perilous passage through hill and dale offers some spectacular views, reinforcing yet again our admiration for the great Victorian engineers and their workforce who carved out these routes in a world devoid of bulldozer and crane.

But nothing prepares one for the epic passage across the Royal Albert Bridge. Way down below is the River Tamar marking the boundary between Devon and Cornwall. Alongside is the suspension bridge of 1961, full of motorists whose eyes are understandably riveted to the road in front of them.

The train crosses the bridge and then swings away to the left, thoughtfully allowing passengers yet another opportunity to look and admire. At this point, the chief steward will probably start waffling on about tea, coffee and light refreshments. Only the most leaden of minds will pay attention to such announcements.

There is no need to ask the name of the genius responsible. Only Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineers' inventor and builder of everything from railway stations to steamships, could have fashioned a structure that triumphs both functionally and aesthetically. Look up at the tower arches and you will see his name and the date of completion, 1859. Even today, the simplicity of the two oval arched tubes seems modern, making Brunel's creation seem a century older and not earlier than the neighbouring suspension bridge.

So what is "sight unseen" about the Royal Albert Bridge? It is the wrought- iron chains and struts which, like the bones of a skeleton, provide the necessary but often overlooked structure - in this case, to tame the outward thrusting pressure caused by the passing trains. The extra weight of our 125s mean that Brunel's iron links have been augmented by modern steel supports bolted on the sides. The only way to tell the difference is to stick one's head out of the window and scrutinise.

Just before his death in September 1859, the ailing Brunel was taken across the bridge in an open truck in order to inspect his work. So if you do stick your head out of the window, you will certainly be in very good company.


The Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, Cornwall