"Where else but in Exeter during the 1960s, a decade notorious for civic destruction of Blitz proportion, would an elegant Edwardian steel bridge be irretrievably broken up, the shady banks of the river beneath it ironed out between concrete barriers and the whole meshed into a cat's cradle of busy roads?" So writes Hugh Meller in his book on Exeter's remaining fragments of historic architecture. "Where else but in Exeter?" It's a question with an almost infinite number of continuations, and unfortunately most of them are negative.
The Edwardian bridge which was destroyed in 1972 was built between 1904 and 1905 as a replacement for the beautiful late-18th century bridge that stood on exactly the same site. (More about the medieval Exe Bridge can be found here.) The Georgian bridge was demolished in 1904 for several reasons e.g. an increase in traffic crossing in and out of Exeter to the west but also because of the need to allow electric trams to cross the river. The inaugural journey of the first electric tram in Exeter coincided almost exactly with the opening of the new steel bridge. A temporary wooden bridge was erected parallel to the beautiful three-arched bridge from the 1770s, then the Georgian bridge was demolished and the new steel bridge was constructed on exactly the same alignment as its predecessor, in line with the 18th century entrance into the city known as New Bridge Street.
The image above shows the view into Exeter via New Bridge Street and Fore Street with the Edwardian Exe Bridge in the foreground. Once again, nothing of this scene survives today.
It seems that at least some people were dismayed at the prospect of the old bridge's demolition. The Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society, as early as 1894, had stated their preference for the new bridge to be built "a little below [the Georgian bridge] to take the heavy traffic". Naturally such ideas were rejected out of hand. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1900 authorising the rebuilding of the Exe Bridge and the old bridge came down, but its replacement was a significant structure in its own right.
The Edwardian bridge of 1905 was designed by Sir John Wolfe-Barry, the youngest son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect behind much of the present-day Houses of Parliament. Today Wolfe-Barry is best remembered as the engineer responsible for Tower Bridge that crosses the Thames in London. The new Exe Bridge was designed with a three-hinged arch. The trusses were secured at the base with steel pins and another pin was used to secure them in the centre where they met. This method allowed the bridge to contract and expand without jeopardising its structural integrity. What made the bridge at Exeter special though was the care and attention that had gone into its Gothic detailing.
The balustrade on both sides was intricately decorated with Gothic quatrefoils. At regular intervals along the balustrades there were blind Gothic arches, in the centre of which was the three-castle motif derived from the city's coat of arms. The huge spandrels of the bridge were covered in richly-wrought details, with Art Nouveau swirls and scrolls combined with a direct reference to a pattern of 14th century tracery found in the windows of Exeter Cathedral. The crossing was lit with superbly-crafted lamp stands: two on either side of the carriageway at each end and with a further two in the centre. The Gothic details extended even to these lamps with the use of pointed Gothic arches and ball-flower pinnacles with more references to Exeter's three-castle motif.
The photograph right shows one of the two surviving lamp stands, now relocated to the Quay. These two exceptional stands are the only parts of the Edwardian Exe Bridge which still exist and provide some indication of the high quality of its decoration. The image below left shows some of the swirling Gothic detailing in the spandrels of the bridge under which is the exact same design as seen in one of the 14th century Decorated Gothic windows in Exeter Cathedral.
In appearance at least the Edwardian Exe Bridge at Exeter closely resembled the great Lendal Bridge which crosses the river Ouse at York, even down to the lamp stands and the quatrefoil detailing on the balustrades. Fortunately the Lendal Bridge still exists. The bridge at Exeter cost around £25,000 to complete and was opened on 29 March 1905. I don't know exactly when the city council started to plot its destruction. Plans for a new inner bypass to the south of the city, towards the bridge, were being hatched as early as 1949, but in 1959 it was announced that a second bridge was going to be installed across the river, leaving the Edwardian bridge intact. However in 1960 an event occurred which provided the perfect excuse for the bridge's demolition.
The river Exe has always flooded as rainwater and river water drain from the hills of North Devon and Exmoor and force their way past the crossing point at Exeter. Floods have been recorded throughout Exeter's history e.g. in 1286 part of the medieval Exe Bridge was washed away by flood water. With the encroachment of residential and industrial areas onto what was formerly marshland, flooding of businesses and homes was inevitable. On 27 October 1960, after torrential rain, 42,000 tons of water every minute flowed through the river Exe. The river burst its banks and innundated 2500 buildings. Just a few weeks later, on 03 December, a similar deluge occurred.
It was thought that the Edwardian bridge had held the water back, causing it to bottleneck and flood into the nearby roads. The decision was therefore taken to unite the newly-complete inner bypass system with a new project: the Exeter Flood Prevention Scheme. The scheme was carried out between 1964 and 1977 at enormous cost, both financially and for its impact on Exeter's cityscape. Various schemes were proposed, including one which would've involved constructing tunnels to carry away surplus water from the river, but obviously these less destructive alternatives came to nothing and Wolfe-Barry's bridge was replaced with two concrete road bridges. (Ironically, many of the properties affected by the 1960s' flooding were subsequently demolished anyway as part of the wider redevelopment!)
The aerial view above right shows the area affected by the construction of the two new Exe Bridges and accompanying road system, with the former location of the Edwardian Exe
Bridge highlighted in red. Prior to the construction of the road system
there were properties and streets extending up to the edge of the
river. By the early-1970s huge tracts of the city had been bulldozed in
order to implement the scheme.
The inner bypass was extended on both sides of the river and hundreds of buildings dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were demolished in the process. It must be remembered that unlike the eastern side of the city, this side of Exeter had escaped the destruction of World War Two almost completely unscathed. The results have been predictably appalling. The photograph above shows the dismal western approach into the centre of Exeter today via one of the two current bridges. What a lovely welcome it makes to the city...
The Edwardian Exe Bridge was cut into pieces and removed, and today nothing remains of it except for the two ornate lamp stands which once adorned the crossing. Having lived in York for four years I know that the Ouse sometimes floods and inundates riverside properties, but York is fortunate that the local authority there didn't decide to adopt Exeter's solution in an attempt to remedy the problem. The bridges over the Exe at Exeter now look like this: