Bridges — By Angela Thompson Smith

Bridges — By Angela Thompson Smith

Bridges have always fascinated me! One minute you are on dry land, the next you are out over an empty space, above sea water, or a roaring waterfall: what was once safe and secure now exists as both a dangerous situation and a path to a new adventure. Life is a bit like that!

My first memories of a bridge were of the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon in Bristol, England. Built in the mid-1800s by the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the bridge was supposed to have elaborate Egyptian-motif sculptures on the supporting towers but finances brought about a simpler design. Embedded in ancient rock on either side of the Avon Gorge, one side leads to the historic region of Hotwells, Clifton (once called Cliff Town) where there were actual hot springs. The other end leads the traveler into Leigh Woods and to the ancestral home of the Smyth Family; now open to the public and hot-air-balloon festivals.

As a child the bridge seemed enormous! Often visited during a day-out to the nearby Bristol Zoo, we would walk over the bridge, gasping at what seemed like thousands of feet below us to the river. When the 40-foot tide was out, the river meandered like a stream through high banks of smelly, grey-green mud; high tide brought seafaring boats, guided by tugs, up to the City Docks. During very low tides, you could see ancient causeways of stone slabs where daring travelers used to ford the riverbed.

Bridges can sometimes bring disappointment. During the 1950’s the only other way to get across the river was by boat ferry from my home village of Shirehampton to the small town of Pill on the Somerset side of the river. The ride on the ferry cost a copper penny, paid into a turnstile that preceded a slippery walk down a muddy, cobblestone slipway. The ferry would come racing across the water, gunning its engine, to ram into the mud on one side of the slip, and noisily extend a wooden walkway from the business end of the boat, where passengers would carefully change places. Once, safely seated in the bowels of the boat, it was then safe to trail your hand in the muddy waters and marvel how the boatmen could keep the craft on track against the racing tide. Often they had to drive the boat against the tide before letting the racing waters bring it back to the Pill slipway across the river.

Then the City built the Avonmouth Bridge, just down river. The ferry, which had run since ancient times, had to close due to an ordinance that decreed, “Alternative ways to cross the river meant it had to cease operation”. The Avonmouth Bridge was a big disappointment: built mostly for lorries and commercial vehicles, it was plain ugly. The villages on either side of the river set up campaigns to bring back the ferry service, to no avail; the days of the penny ferry were gone.

There were other bridges: one that spanned the Swallow Falls over rushing cataracts of white water, up near Betws Coed in the Snowdonia range of north Wales, the Severn Bridge taking travelers swiftly from the Gloucester side over to South Wales, across the wide Bristol Channel but the one that sticks in my mind was the broken bridge in Colombia.

In the 1970s, I signed on to work for two years at the Paraiso Infantil orphanage in Villavicencio. The orphanage property was located on the outskirts of town, where the Andes foothills gave way to the Llanos, the productive plains that extended all the way to the Amazon jungle. On the bus ride down to the orphanage, the mountain people could be seen zipping between the hills and across the river on wires strung between two high points. I wondered if I would get to do that?

Between the town and the orphanage was the Rio. In the dry season, this was a quiet flow of clear snow-run-off from the mountains: during the monsoons it completely changed its character becoming a raging deluge.  There was a concrete bridge a couple of miles downstream but the quickest way to the orphanage was to either ford the Rio with your vehicle or walk across a rope bridge. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, the bridge had been severely damaged by a huge storm that ripped the planks from the rope supports, leaving a treacherous climb across the swift waters.

The first night, we safely forded the Rio in a cattle truck (the orphanage van had broken down just outside town) but the next day going in to retrieve the truck meant a climb across the rope bridge! The Colombians were nimble and showed me where to step safely but it was a hair-raising adventure. We crossed many times by this precarious route until the next big storm completely ripped the remaining bridge apart and we had to hike to the cement bridge or hitch rides into town. We could never rely on the orphanage van and one of us had to ride shotgun hitting the battery with a hammer to ensure the engine fired.

In closing here’s a quote from Winnie the Pooh that echoes my philosophy about bridges: “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over and watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”


Publishing Editor’s Note:  Once again Angela captures our wonder and imagination with her life experiences and amazing descriptions.  The beautiful photo is from an old postcard supplied by Angela.  

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