On 3rd September 2014 I went on a field trip to Over Bridge, 1 mile NW of Gloucester (Ordnance Survey land ranger series 162 ref SO816196) at the junction of the A40 (Ross) and A417 (Ledbury). In my field guide I read that Over Bridge is “A single-arch stone bridge spanning the River Severn, built in 1825-30 by the great engineer Thomas Telford. The first recorded bridge at Over is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1089.” There has been a bridge there since medieval times it seems. Then:
“In 1825 Thomas Telford (1757–1834), one of Britain’s greatest engineers, designed a new bridge to replace a Tudor one that had been damaged by ice in 1818, and whose narrow arches had restricted river traffic. The new bridge […] was opened in 1830. It was the lowest practicable crossing point of the river – before the first Severn Suspension Bridge was built at Aust in the 1960s. In spite of the early subsidence, the bridge withstood the increasing volume of heavy traffic passing over it until the early 1960s, when the present dual carriage and new steel bridge were built to the north. Over Bridge is a single-span arch bridge approximately 328 feet (100 metres) long and 30 feet (9 metres) wide. Telford employed the ‘cornes de vache’ technique whereby horn shapes are cut out of the sides of the bridge with the aim of reducing the turbulence and increasing the flow of water in times of flood. The technique also gives the illusion of a longer, flatter arch.”
– excerpts from Heritage Unlocked – Guide to Free Sites in Bristol, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, published by English Heritage.
I waited for a local bus in Gloucester bus station, the 23 towards Coleford. After leaving Bristol by rail, my train had been delayed at Stoud, and I was feeling weary, it being a day with a heaviness in the air too. The bus passed Over Bridge on the left hand side, the new bridge having been built very close to it, in parallel, and the sight of the great stone bridge was a bit startling. Getting off at the stop, I was just on a busy main road, which felt a little like being in the middle of nowhere even though it was just a few minutes out of town. I saw the interpretation board first, then looked up and saw the top length of the bridge. I had not realised it was no longer used – I had actually been worried I may miss it on the bus as we drive over it.
What a strange experience it was, walking over this bridge, like a sleeping giant. It is so big, so impressive in scale and so grand-looking. Yet being unused, has a very odd atmosphere of a ghost bridge, of abondonment. The busy new bridge being so near and its sounds so dominant, only makes the quiet stillness of this huge bridge and its surroundings even more surreal. This field trip doesn’t have the pilgrim-like journey of the barrows trips. It is actually easy to reach this place, so much so that I was not really prepared for this experience. This bridge, and this place, have an atmosphere all their own. Its like the bridge is there but its not there, it is hovering in parallel, and conjures up something of a looking-glass feeling, especially after having felt so sleepy on the way. Reaching the end of the bridge, the stone and tarmac just stop and turn into a thin earth trail which winds sharply down, and I found myself standing between the old and the new bridges. As I looked from one to the other, the overwhelming impression is of arches – visual arches and arches of sound as the cars zoom by overhead. I was suddenly very alert and awake and aware of the scent of the wild plants and wet warm ground. The vegetation was tall and thick all around me, and on such a balmy day, it was intoxicating – old pollen, earth, moss, and decay. The water was low, and made no sound. I went under the new bridge and saw many creatures footprints in the thick-set cracking mud.
There are cycle routes here, so the occasional cyclist zips by without even seeming to notice me. I felt invisible, and wondered, is the bridge ‘invisible’? How can something so big, and made of stone, feel invisible? Maybe it just feels like it can’t really be there, and being so impressed and immersed in it, sharing its in-between realm, made me feel I wasn’t really there either. Its an odd sensation – like discovering something exotic and legendary, something of a lost civilisation, especially with its classical design. Theres something of the fantastical ruin about it. It feels ‘off the map’, between the gaps. It didn’t feel like being transported back in time, it was more a feeling of displacement very much in the present day.
I left the bridge and saw a plastic disc with ‘Three Choirs Way’ on it. I was curious to know what connection to singing this site may have. I walked back into Gloucester along the heavy road, and having never seen it, stopped off to look at the outside of the Cathedral. Everything was closing, and commuters were pouring out of the station as I entered.
After my visit to Over bridge, I found a book about Thomas Telford (1757-1834) in Bristol Central Library, and the arch of Over bridge was mentioned:
“The body of the arch was an ellipse with a chord line of 150 feet and a rise of thirty five feet, but the voussoirs, or external arch stones, were set to segments on the same chord with a rise of only thirteen feet.” – Thomas Telford by L.T.C Rolt, published by Longmans, 1965.
I like how the word ‘chord’ appears, it makes me think of music, and I like the idea of an arch being made of two arcs rising from the same point, or chord / root, to two different heights. I integrated these engineering ideas into the structure of track 1 of the audio sketches (below).
I looked up the Three Choirs Way, and it seems to be a long distance walkers route connecting places where sacred music has been long performed: “A route between Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester through countryside of hop-yards, vineyards and orchard with a theme linking the walk to the ancient music festivals still celebrated annually in the three Cathedrals.”
Next field trip: Meare Fish House
Note: these tracks are panned to use both left and right, so for the best experience use headphones or stereo speakers.
These tracks are are composite arrangements (CA) of field recordings, or as I term them, ‘sound sketches’. Tracks labelled FR are straightforward field recordings (FR).
Track 1: (2.09 min) CA
This audio is an initial portrait of Over Bridge as a ‘ghost bridge’. It is structured around a single durational recording. I walked the length of the bridge along the top, and recorded the sound of my hand against the stone. With the background sound of the cars crossing the new bridge nearby at speed, they create a kind of undulating drone that in its duration describes something of the physicality of the abandoned bridge. If this portrays the long, road part of the bridge, the arch needs to be ‘beneath’ this. The large single arch of this bridge is actually made from two arches, both starting at the same place at the base but ascending to different heights, one going higher than the other. I had a recording of myself singing arch-shaped phrases in one of the resonant side spaces under the bridge. I separated these out and spliced them into pairs, keeping the sequence they were recorded in, and laid one over the other, with the onsets – the beginnings of each sound – being perfectly matched up. The result is that a series of ‘double arches’ are heard, reaching slightly different ‘heights’ (pitches). I placed these ‘under’ the drone-like durational recording, by having them lower in the mix at a quieter volume. The resulting sung ‘arches’ have a ghostly quality, and listening to this track makes me imagine each voice is like a journey that the bridge has witnessed.
Track 2: (1.35 min) CA
This was recorded under the bridge, where I threw my voice from one side to the other and listened for echoes against the huge arches across the water. I did this on both sides, and then made this track by overlaying the tracks and panning them left and right. So if you listen with headphones, the recording made on the left hand side of the bridge is is heard in your left ear and vice versa. I also included the recordings of walking through the undergrowth on each corresponding sides.
Track 3: (2.51 min) FR
This was recorded under the new bridge, with cars and lorries speeding above me. I tried to ‘sing back’, or vocalise, the bridge’s rattles, echoes, and the sounds of the vehicles.