The Dale Bridge and its passing

By Stephen Best

HERE, IN GILBERT CLARKE'S PHOTOGRAPH, we see a local landmark in its last years. Built in 1889, Sneinton Dale railway bridge survived until October 1962, though it carried virtually no traffic after 1931. For several generations the bridge formed an emphatic backcloth to the Sneinton Dale townscape, effectively shutting off the view of the Dale above it, and giving an enclosed feel to the lower, Sneinton, part of the Dale.

Crossing Sneinton Dale on a skew of 48 degrees, the bridge comprised three arches which measured thirty feet on the square, and forty three feet on the skew. Like the other bridges on the short, but heavily engineered Nottingham Suburban Railway,

Sneinton Dale bridge was faced with blue brindle bricks supplied by the Hathem Brick Co.; behind these were red bricks made by the Nottingham Patent Brick Co., whose brickyards were served by sidings off the line. Two of the original directors of the Suburban Railway company, Robert Mellors and Edward Gripper, also held office as chairman of the Patent Brick Co. The bridge cappings were of Derbyshire gritstone. Sneinton Dale was a very busy spot during the construction of the line, as the contractor's workshops were set up on a site next to the Dale bridge. A local man, James Scott of Meadow Lane, Sneinton, acted as superintendent of works for the contractors, J. P. Edwards of Birmingham.

As has been related before in Sneinton Magazine, the line handled, at the time of its opening in 1889, nine or ten passenger trains in either direction on weekdays, with two or three goods trains each way. With the withdrawal of local stopping trains in 1916, and the consequent closure of the Suburban stations at Thorneywood, St Ann's, and Sherwood, passenger traffic declined to a dribble; a handful of through passenger trains continued to be routed over the line, and the small number of goods services lingered on as before. 1931 saw the end of the passenger traffic, use of the Suburban Line dwindling to three goods trains a week, from Daybrook to Thorneywood and back, which left Sneinton Dale bridge to all intents and purposes disused. During an air raid on the night of May 8-9 1941, a bomb destroyed the embankment close to Colwick Road, putting an end to the prospect of further through traffic on the line, had any been contemplated. The Sneinton Dale bridge was thus on a redundant stub of the Suburban Line south of Thorneywood station, but to anyone who, as a child, used to see it in the latter part of the war, and in early post-war years, it looked far from abandoned. Rows of condemned goods wagons were stored along this part of the line, and year after year, so it appeared, the bridges over Sneinton Dale and Colwick Road were topped by the silent ranks of these vehicles. Thinking back on it, I seem, as a boy, never to have looked up the Dale without seeing a row of goods wagons outlined against the sky. After this storage of wagons ceased in 1950, the bridge hung on for a further twelve years, cursed by an increasing body of motorists.

The photograph shows just what an obstacle to road traffic it had become; both faces of the pier in the middle of the carriageway bore a white-painted target, to assist car drivers in blackout or fog. When the bridge was built, the roadway of Sneinton Dale was much narrower than it later became, and only the middle arch (the right hand one in the picture) spanned it. It was not until about 1930 that the carriageway was widened, to make the southern arch of the bridge available for city-bound traffic; the road narrowed sharply again just west of the bridge, by the Belisha beacon in the photo. Although the scene here is placid one (quiet enough for the photographer to stand in the middle of Highcliffe Road), the day cannot be a Sunday, as a roadsweeper is going about his work almost underneath the bridge. His barrow is out of camera shot, as is the men's lavatory which stood in the bridge's shadow. This latter was frequently the cause of an extra bus stop, as drivers or conductors of eastbound buses availed themself of its presence. In our almost traffic-free view, a solitary Bedford lorry passes the bottom of Rossington Road on its way up the Dale, which boasts a bristling row of telegraph poles along its southern pavement. The street lamps in the picture are of far more pleasing scale than those of today, though one doubts whether the illumination they afforded would be acceptable in 1993. Under the right hand bridge arch in the photo, a pedestrian walks beneath the metal 'Hovis' sign on Legg's bakery (now Sheltons solicitors) at the comer of Barnston Road. Closer to the camera, a police telephone box stands at the end of Edale Road, opposite the confectioners and post office long kept by F.C. Clarke. The eastern face of the bridge displays a fine crop of period advertisements; on the left the well- remembered Australian prospector smokes his Player's Digger tobacco, while the next advert enjoins the passer-by to 'Have a Guinness when you're tired'. The third, in a familiar phrase, advocates 'Andrews for inner cleanliness', and the boarding in the spandrel of the bridge declares 'I want Cadbury's'.

The end of the bridge came in the early hours of Sunday, October 7th 1962. The Nottingham daily papers (of which there were still three) had a busy time in the sixties recording the demolition of local railway landmarks, and Sneinton Dale bridge was not overlooked. Originally scheduled for 2 a.m., the blowing-up of the bridge was put back to 6 o'clock, after a number of protests had been received from local residents. The bridge had been stripped in advance of its stone cappings and parapets. People assembled at the spot from midnight onwards, a crowd of about three hundred gathering on both sides of the bridge. It is likely that a number of these sightseers were under the impression that a 2 o'clock explosion was still planned, as the crowd had thinned out before the time of the detonation. The demolition contractors, Swinnerton and Miller of Wolverhampton, were under the personal supervision of Mr Swinnerton himself. They planted 240 lbs of explosives, which were detonated in 400 charges; there were forty separate explosions in sequence in just 116 seconds.

The Guardian Journal reporter interviewed a Mr Godfrey who lived in Sneinton Dale, only eighteen feet from the bridge. This gentleman related that crowds began chattering outside his house from 12 o'clock; most of them, he thought, were on their way home from Goose Fair, which had closed down on Saturday night. Giving up the attempt to get some sleep, the householder had risen at 4 a.m. to prepare breakfast for himself. His next-door neighbour, a lady, told the press that she had fortified herself against the noise by donning earplugs and covering her head with a blanket. Of the explosion itself, Mr Godfrey remarked: 'It never even shook a picture off the wall. But what a bang!' It sounded, he thought, like a clap of thunder. The Guardian Journal account declared that the Sneinton Dale bridge '.....erupted in a shower of bricks and rubble................... The blast was heard miles away, but not a window was smashed, not a cup and saucer disturbed in the neighbouring houses.' The contractors worked very quickly at clearing the debris, and the road was open for traffic again by Sunday evening.

Now for an odd tailpiece. In 1962 I was living just off Sneinton Dale, and I remembered from that time that one of the Nottingham papers had included a curious valedictory to the vanishing bridge. After something of a search, this was eventually found in 'Letters to the editor', in the Evening Post of October 9. It bore the name of Mr Leslie Spinks, of Barnston Road; Mr Spinks took a keen interest in local history and topography, and had, over the years, submitted contributions on the subject to the local press. What is really striking about this letter is that it is addressed not to the reader or the editor, but to the bridge itself, and in terms which would not have been out of place in a Victorian newspaper. 'Farewell, O bridge, so beautifully built! What workmanship went into your building. As a schoolboy, I have sheltered under you from summer storms, have walked under you in my youthful days when courting. I remember the time when the elite of Sneinton on the tennis court at your side were sheltered from the east winds by your embankment. I remember the time when a lucid stream ran under your arches, and with my schoolboy friends [I] bathed my feet in the cooling water. I remember, too, the time when a gallant engine pulled what seemed to be a tired train over your noble arches, and we waved to the passengers on their suburban journey. You have proved to be too strong for the pickaxe or the bulldozer (so they say). True, you were very well built. Could you have been used as a cycle track or footpath from Colwick Road to Thorneywood? Of course your central buttress was a nuisance, and impeded traffic flow. So they've blown you up to make Sneinton Dale a more effective racing track for the speed gentlemen in a hurry to get nowhere in particular, unless it be to that bourne from which no traveller returns. O noble bridge, I could almost shed a tear at your passing! Is it profane to say 'I loved you'?

Did ever a traffic obstacle, one wonders, ever receive such a eulogy, with a quotation from Hamlet thrown in? Mr Spinks made several interesting points. I am not certain of the exact location of the tennis court he refers to, but believe that it was on the land now occupied by Hardstaff Road. Certainly Mr Spinks, who was bom in 1894, would have been able to recall a time before that street was built. As for the stream, no trace of it appears on large scale maps, but a very old photo (not reproduced here), suggests the presence of a ditch, hardly indicative of 'lucid' water, on the south side of the old Sneinton Dale roadway. If this was indeed the stream, its present location is underground, in the middle of the carriageway. The reference to a 'tired train' bears out the observations of railway historians, who suggest that the little Great Northern 0-4-4 tank engines designed by Patrick Stirling frequently experienced difficulties in hauling passenger trains over steep gradients of the Suburban Line.

A glance through the letters column of the Post for the remainder of that week in October 1962 revealed three responses to Mr Spinks' offering. Once correspondent praised his letter, saying what a pleasure it had been to read it. Two others, however, wrote in to say that now the Sneinton Dale obstruction had been removed, it was high time for other traffic hazards along the suburban route, like the Thackerays Lane and Woodthorpe Drive bridges, to be done away with. For all Mr Spinks' passion, one suspects that the letter column was a pretty accurate reflection of local opinion; those glad to see the back of disused railway bridges outnumbering sentimentalists by at least two to one.

Thousands of people have lived in Sneinton in the last thirty years without ever realising that a railway used to cross the Dale, but the clues are there if you look for them. To identify the site of the bridge today, stand in Sneinton Dale, just to the west of Highcliffe Road. On your left is the Police contact point, with, behind it, the severed end of the railway embankment. From this point the bridge crossed over the Dale on the skew, to where the new Greenwood and Sneinton Health Centre now stands. The Health Centre is built just where the third, northern arch of the bridge joined its embankment. Some effort of the imagination is required to picture the precise location of the bridge, but if you take this illustration with you, and compare it with your present surroundings, it should be clear enough.

It would be very interesting to know whether there is anyone left who remembers crossing Sneinton Dale in a passenger train. As local services ceased 77 years ago, the odds must be very long against there being a survivor from the passengers who used to travel to Thorneywood, St Ann's Well, or Sherwood. The infrequent through trains for more distant destinations on the Leen Valley line to Shirebrook, however, last ran 62 years ago, so there is an outside chance that someone, somewhere, recalls making such a journey.