On the naming of bridges

April 6, 2018 2 Comments

Unsurprisingly the announcement this week by Alun Cairns, Secretary of State for Wales, that the Second Severn Crossing is to be renamed the ‘Prince of Wales Bridge’ has caused uproar.

Perhaps it was intended to. Some have even suggested that the move is a dry run for the future announcement of a Welsh investiture of the next Prince of Wales. An even more unkind suggestion was that Mr Cairns has his eye on a future knighthood. It’s arguable that he has few claims on one otherwise: the list of his achievements on behalf of his country is a very short one, while his failings, including the absence of rail electrification and the Swansea tidal lagoon, are many.

Two things about the decision have angered people.

First, Cairns took it without public consultation.  It appears he had a conversation with the Welsh Government, which strangely ‘raised no objection’ to the renaming: it’s difficult to imagine the Scottish Government rubber-stamping a similar decision in such a supine way. And speaking of Scotland, contrast the new Forth bridge opened in 2017.  Everyone in the country had a chance to offer their views and vote on names beforehand (the winner was the neutral ‘Queensferry Crossing’). Cairns’s diktat is consistent with a worrying trend by the UK government to make unilateral decisions without considering the views of people in Wales – another is the attempted ‘power grab’ by Westminster of EU powers affecting devolved areas – and I suspect we can look forward, after Brexit, to more muscle-flexing from a neo-imperial British state.

Photo by REX/Shutterstock

Second, the new name itself. Those of us who think that a hereditary monarchy is a morbid symptom of popular servility and immature democracy can hardly welcome a ‘royal’ bridge. (Republicans were flippantly dismissed by Cairns in a television interview as beneath contempt.) The Prince of Wales cannot really be the ‘Prince of Wales’, if you believe, as many do, that the last Prince of Wales died in 1282. And finally, Charles Windsor may not be a very appropriate figure to have his name attached to a major bridge if you accept even a fraction of the damning portrait of him in Tom Bower’s recent biography, where he appears as petulant, vain, cold, remote, cruel and extravagant.

No doubt something had to be done. ‘Second Severn Crossing’ must always have been a working, interim name, to be replaced in time by something shorter and less prosaic. The transfer of the bridge to public ownership later this year is a suitable time for a new name. Plenty of names are available.

Historically, naming bridges is rarely a contentious matter, for a good reason: the usual source of the name is the bridge’s geographical location – over which there is generally little debate. Problems arise, though, when authorities insist that a bridge should take the name of a person, whether alive or dead.

Eugene Talmadge Bridge, Savannah, Ga.

Last year Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, attempted to have a bridge over the Hudson River north of the city renamed after his late father and also Governor of New York, the ‘Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge’. 100,000 online signatures were collected in three weeks in protest against changing the bridge’s original name, the Tappen Zee, which had the advantage of commemorating both the native Americans and the Dutch inhabitants of the area.

Division over ‘personal name’ bridges can persist for decades. One of the main bridges in Savannah, Georgia, built in 1953 and rebuilt in 1991, was named after Governor Eugene Talmadge (1884-1946), a notorious and extreme segregationist. Savannah residents have never ceased to press for the bridge to be renamed. The fact that they haven’t yet succeeded is revealing about Georgia’s continuing problem with race. Campaigns to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – Pettus was a racist and leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the state – have also come to nothing.

Selim the Grim

Similar divisions arose in Istanbul when a new bridge across the Bosporus, opened in 2016 by the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was named the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge in honour of the ninth Ottoman emperor, Selim I. He was known as Selim the Grim for his military aggression and the severity of his rule. It’s easy to see why he would appeal to a man of such dictatorial tendencies as Erdogan, but his memory is not universally revered in Turkey. In particular, Selim was notorious for his massacre of the Alevis, a sect whose members today resent Turkey’s increasing intolerance towards minority groups.

Walt Whitman Bridge

Even apparently safe names from the past can raise hackles. In 1954 the Walt Whitman Bridge over the Delaware River was opened, linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But Walt, it turned out, was not an American hero for everyone at the time, and a loud campaign tried to strip the bridge of its name.  It was led by religious groups those members regarded him as a dangerous ‘free thinker’ and homosexual (or, worse still, ‘homoerotic’).

Much safer, then, to stick with bridge names that avoid the names of people, living or dead. One possibility, I’d suggest, would be Portskewett Bridge or Pont Porth Sgiwed, to commemorate the place from which the ferry once sailed across the Severn estuary. Portskewett is an ancient place, well worth visiting. It has traces of prehistoric, Roman and post-Roman settlement. In the middle ages, it was an important port, and when the railway came Sudbrook grew up next door as a village to house the workers who built and maintained the Severn Tunnel.

Another candidate, with a darker tone, would be Black Rock Bridge, or Pont Carreg Ddu. Black Rock was the exact spot in Portskewett from which boats started for the other side of the estuary. Roman coins found there date from the early years of Roman occupation and suggest that the ferry has been in use for many centuries. It’s also the last place in Wales where fisherman come to practise the ancient art of lave fishing, taking advantage of the Severn’s enormous tidal reach and power.

It’s worth thinking about alternatives to the ‘Prince of Wales Bridge’, even if Mr Cairns insists his decision is ‘final’, because sometimes people decide to ignore official titles, if they’re handed down from above and don’t enjoy wide support.  Some will remember that Charles Windsor himself, by renaming a planned extension to the National Gallery in London a ‘Monstrous Carbuncle’, ensured that the plans were never translated into a finished building.

Of course the first Severn Bridge would also need to be renamed. If the second bridge were to be named after a Welsh place, maybe, in fairness, the first bridge should be called after the nearest place on the English shore. So, maybe, the Aust Bridge, or, in Welsh, Pont Awst. Aust also has Roman origins, since its name apparently derives from the personal name Augustus. But on second thoughts, someone’s sure to object on the grounds that the emperor Augustus was a ruthless despot and imperial villain, and that bridges should avoid being named after real people ….

Comments (2)

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  1. Rowland Morgan says:

    The Monmouth Bridge would commemorate an ancient nearby town (and my mother’s birthplace).

    BTW, you might know my brother, Gerald Morgan, who is attached to the Library.

    Rowland (Morgan)

  2. Chris Armstrong says:

    It is worth noting that as the ‘Second’ bridge is the default bridge, most people simply refer to is as the Severn Bridge (and would presumably differentiate, if necessary, by using ‘old’ or ‘original’to refer the other bridge). I’m not sure it really needs a name – certainly not a new name – certainly not this new name – there must be many who simply just take the M4 into Wales.

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