Thomas Telford in detail (2)

Thomas Telford in detail (2)

This is the second part of the feature on Thomas Telford’s achievements. Telford was of course one of Britian’s greatest engineers – except he built few railways but mostly roads or canals. Many of his canals in fact supplemented railways built by others. In the first part we looked at Telford’s Wesh achievements namely the Menai bridge and the A5. Here we view some of his excellent bridges in England and Scotland before a visit to his birthplace in Dumfries and Galloway.

2) Mystery Bridge

This second entry is an enigma, in fact its the only one of the entire lot on Rosoman’s painting that’s left me puzzled. Its depicted as a twin span rather pointed arch bridge. Although it might be artistic licence as I don’t seem to find that Telford ever actually constructed a bridge like this It does, however, in a way, look a little like Pont Fawr (or Llanwrst bridge) nevertheless that one is by Indigo Jones and has three arches. The identity of this Telford bridge remains a mystery even though it is marked as number three on the University of Nottingham picture. In some ways it looks a little like Telford’s Helmsdale bridge in the far north of Scotland, however the way its depicted is sort of wrong. Perhaps a reader or two of mine can help out?

The lower one (below the mystery bridge) depicted as number three on the Rosoman’s picture is Over bridge which spans the Severn near Gloucester, a very usual structure as far as Telford’s designs go.

3) Over Bridge

Over bridge, with its excellent ‘corne de vache’ design. This is the way the chamfered edges form another elliptical design within the elliptical arch of the bridge. Source: Twitter

The structure was opened in 1830 and even though its a mere twenty years or so newer than Dunkeld bridge (shown below) Telford seems to have leapt light years into the future. Over bridge is a highly modernised form that exploits curvature to give the best pleasing effect. The single stone arch must be without a doubt one of the best in this country. If we compare another wow bridge built at roughly the same time, this being the Maidenhead railway bridge of 1838, Telford has in fact gone miles better than Isambard Brunel. Maidenhead bridge has spans of 128 feet (39m) and it was much vaunted as having the shallowest arch of any bridge in the world at the time. There’s no arguing with that of course, however what Telford has done at Over is to give a sort of similar effect with the clever use of chamfered stone work. Not only that Over bridge achieves a 150 foot span too, bigger than Maidenhead, and when one compares this to Brunel’s famous bridge, again Telford has leapt light years into the future. Telford’s work shows that roads can too be beautiful, even more than railways in fact.

Slightly different perspective, showing the elliptical arch style to greater advantage. Also note the classical style of archway that forms part of the bridge’s foundations. Source: English Heritage

4) Dunkeld Bridge

Number four is Dunkeld bridge. This is a most excellent structure, one that’s very finely designed with high quality stonemason work much in evidence. It opened in 1809 and the techniques between this and that at Over couldn’t be more different. That at Dunkeld is however a beautiful bridge too and no doubt like a lot of other of his work, Telford wanted to show these structures were not just mere contrivances but served a purpose too whilst also having a great sense of beauty about them

Dunkeld bridge shown to good detail here. The castellated piers can be easily seen and also the very fine quality of the stone work. Source: Twitter.

View of Dunkeld bridge with fishermen on the River Tay. The view shows the bridge’s elegance very well. Source: Birnam Arts.

Dunkeld bridge (at right) with Buildwas bridge (now demolished) at left.

4a) Mystery bridge – identified as Buildwas

The entry with no number between numbers four and five initially proved to be a mystery for me – but its without a doubt Buildwas bridge, built by Telford in 1796. Sadly its no longer extant, having been replaced in 1905. I’m not sure why it has been included in the painting seeing all the other structures still exist. Its probably why it wasn’t numbered. The bridge’s demolition in 1905 occurred because the rather brittle cast iron structure was becoming potentially unsafe after its foundations shifted due to erosion.

Telford clearly wanted to honour the earlier bridges built across the Severn (such as those at Ironbridge and Coalport) by using cast iron for his own structures. Buildwas in fact sorts of resembles these earlier bridges, however Telford’s other later Severn are huge single span cast iron structures such as those at Holt Fleet, Mythe and Tewksbury – and these are a complete departure compared to his Buildwas structure.

Old photograph of Telford’s Buildwas bridge. Source: Shropshire Archives

5) Aberdeen Harbour

Number five at the top of the painting is Aberdeen Harbour.

Aberdeen harbour, which Telford was employed to remodel on a considerable scale during 1810-1813 and providing for better navigation to and from the sea. New wharves were also built and a direct link was made to the former Aberdeenshire Canal (closed 1854.)

Aberdeen harbour has changed enormously thus there’s very little evidence of the work undertaken by both Telford and Smeaton. The Scottish oil industry brought about rapid change for this important sea port thus it is now one of the most modernised in the country. Nevertheless the three main channels designed by Telford to form the harbour area still exist although largely altered as show in the picture below.

Although Aberdeen’s harbour is very different these days there’s still some other similarity between Telford’s work and how it looks today. The north pier (and the smaller southern breakwater in the centre of the picture) are largely Telford’s, adding to the substantial earlier work undertaken by John Smeaton. Source: Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce

There’s a good zoomable map at the National Library of Scotland. This is a later map that Telford produced, since it already shows some of the work that had been undertaken under his supervision.

Telford’s birthplace…

Something that puzzled me was exactly where was Thomas Telford born? During my researches I found various mentions of it however these were way out. Look it up and pretty much everything will point to Westerkirk in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Many sources also mention Eskdalemuir but that’s not quite accurate either.

Rather its another place known as Glendinning. It seems finding Telford’s birthplace is like looking for a needle in a haystack! That ever so reliable source of information, Google, doesn’t even have the required detail!

Thomas Telford was born on 9th August 1757 at this cottage in the isolated hamlet of Glendinning, Dumfries and Galloway. Source: Momentous Britain.

Commemorative stone on Telford, which informs us his birthplace was at Glendinning. The tweet this points to however suggests its Westerkirk! Source: Twitter

Telford’s birthplace is indeed in the parish of Westerkirk, but that’s practically four miles from Glendinning. Those who have been to the actual place say it is not easy to reach because there are farm tracks and private right of ways. The actual spot in question is on a small hillside opposite the tiny hamlet of Glendinning. One can cycle or drive up to Glendinning, leave the car or bikes parked and walk the remainder of the way.

This road junction near Westerkirk has a signpost that says ‘Telford Cairn’ – the road heads northwest but is not covered by Google. Source: Google Streets.

Zoom showing the signpost with ‘Telford Cairn’ marked.

Its four miles or so north from this road junction climbing up through quite isolated valleys to reach Glendinning. There’s a lot of sheep about so take it slowly!

The tiny hamlet of Glendinning, four miles north of Westerkirk in Dumfries and Galloway. The view of these houses is taken almost from where Telford’s childhood home used to stand. Source: Twitter

When one reaches Glendinning it seems the route to reach the cairn is by walking from the road along the dry stone wall that heads almost due west. There’s three gates to pass through before one reaches the cairn itself. Unfortunately there’s no information to show exactly the route in question or the actual site of the cairn. As for the site itself Grid Reference Finder has it marked but its slightly off the spot itself.

For the purposes of this article I created an actual location spot marker on Google Streets which marks the exact spot with a red pointer blob. It seems there’s never been one before – which is why Google has no clue where Telford’s birthplace is! I tried to fill in the details for Google so information would come up showing what the site was about exactly. However to actually complete that information fully I would have to claim the Telford Cairn as a business!! No way was I ever going to do that! Its not right one cannot simply put in some basic detail to help others find the location of Telford’s birthplace.

The view from the Telford Cairn at Glendinning. The cairn itself marks the site of Telford’s childhood home. Source: Roots Chat

The Telford Cairn marking the site of the house at Glendinning in Scotland where he was born. Source: Twitter

Anyway, the question of exactly where Telford’s birthplace has been resolved and we know its on a hillside opposite the small hamlet of Glendinning, near Westerkirk, Langholm, Dumfries and Galloway. Having done that, Google now recognises the site as an ‘Unnamed Road, Langholm DG13 0NN, UK. ‘ Here’s the Google Plus Code for Telford’s birthplace – 7V6V+MG Langholm! And once again, here’s the actual spot marked on Google Streets.

(Updated April 2021 and October 2022)

Continued in Part Three.

Thomas Telford in detail posts:

Thomas Telford in detail 1

Thomas Telford in detail 2

Thomas Telford in detail 3