Letter from Lancaster 7

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7. Thomas Harrison’s Bridge

There is a purity in Harrison’s early buildings in Lancaster that has run through me like a thread of spring water in a manifold river. I only realised this when I returned, looked afresh, lived next to his bridge, looked into his work.

Harrison was a 38-year-old unknown in 1782 when he won the competition to build a new bridge over the Lune from Skerton to Lancaster. But he had a backstory. Son of a joiner, from aged 25 to 32 he was in Rome, at the expense of Yorkshire’s richest man, Lawrence Dundas. There he studied the architecture, made many drawings, entered competitions (none of which he won). In 1776 he returned through France, studying and drawing. He then spent two years in London, trying to get noticed and taken up as an architect, but it was a bad time for building, he failed, and returned to Richmond.

Skerton bridge is mainly noted for being the first bridge in England with a level deck. It is a fine piece of engineering, so well designed and built that, unaltered, it carries 40-ton trucks. However, in what could easily have been a piece of practical bridge building, Harrison incorporated, hid in plain sight, elements from his years on the Continent. The level deck is taken from Perronet’s Pont de Neuilly bridge in Paris, opened in 1772 by the king to great fanfare. It is the same length, with the same five elliptical arches. Then into Perronet’s plain engineer’s design, Harrison incorporates elements from classical and contemporary architecture. The niches cut through above each pier derive from the Ponte Fabricio in Rome. Each is faced with an aedicule – the pointed house-like structure made to shelter an altar or god. He told the sponsors that they had the practical value of lightening the load on the piers, and relieving flood pressure; I see aesthetic decisions that allow the eye to flow through the bridge, and add a vertical contrast to the bridge’s horizontality. And the piers are rusticated (rough surfaced), in contrast to the ashlar (smooth-faced stone) of the bridge: this conforms to the Palladian epitome, contrasting basement with main building. In a practical bridge in a small Northern town he seamlessly incorporated Parisian bridge building, Roman design, Classical tradition, and Palladian ideal.

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There is a final element in this masterwork. The purpose of the level deck was to create a grand entrance into the town. Walk across in the centre of the road – traffic permitting! – and you see this intention. For you are walking towards the ensemble he built at the end of the bridge, built to the Palladian ideal of Classical house with two wings. (Although the fine house would serve simply as a customs house.) Again, this design came from his days in Rome, his competition entry for a grand entrance to the city. A grand avenue was opened from the bridge to the town centre, and the area by the river laid out for fine houses. It never happened. The ‘Green Ayre’ was first a shipyard, and then a railway station. For Lancaster’s port and prosperity were now in decline, the town entering its 70 years of stagnation.
So that when the ‘Little North Western’ railway was built on the Lancaster side of the river, the end of Harrison’s bridge was raised to bridge over it, ruining the connection of buildings and bridge. Subsequent road engineering and signage have further obscured the connection.

I will save my two favourite Harrison structures for another letter.

Note: All the facts above come from: ‘Thomas Harrison, Georgian Architect of Chester and Lancaster, 1744 – 1829’, by John Champness, an exemplary account of Harrison’s training and work.

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