The old church tower, or "Pepperpot" as it has become known, and the road bridge crossing the River Severn, have together come to symbolise the town of Upton upon Severn. In fact they are both the basis of the logo of the Upton upon Severn Civic Society. Much has been written elsewhere about the "Pepperpot" church tower, and its place in the Civil War in particular, but little about the bridge itself.
The early history of Upton is obscure but it is clear that the Town exists because it is sited at a convenient former ford, or "lode", of the river, which was much wider then. Opinions vary as to the siting of the ford, with some suggesting it was upstream from the site of the present bridge whilst others say it was by the Swan Hotel. The Romans are believed to have improved matters by building a wooden bridge, thus ensuring the river could be crossed regardless of any flooding problems. Their associated settlement could have formed the basis of the present town. Later the town has a specific mention in the Domesday Book, but as being part of the Parish of Ripple. There is no mention of a bridge but the association with Ripple suggests a convenient river crossing of some sort.
The first positive record of the existence of a bridge seems to be in accounts of 1480, when the then ferry is described as "vacant because of the bridge". This first recorded bridge was of wooden construction. In 1530 Leland recorded "Upton standith on the right bank of the Severn apon a cluster 4 miles above Theokesbyri (Tewkesbury)"
In the mid 14th Century, what is known as Halls Charity was founded for the upkeep of the bridge but a deed of 1575 provided for this Charity to also raise funds for the church and other necessary purposes as well as the bridge. Inevitably, arguments developed over use of funds, particularly as the Statute of Bridges of 1530 allowed County authorities to levy rates for the upkeep of bridges thus, arguably, releasing more for the church etc...
An Act of 1605 allowed replacement of the wooden bridge by a red sandstone five arch bridge. This was however partially destroyed in 1645 during the Civil War but was repaired, albeit somewhat inadequately. After a much troubled life, the sandstone bridge was eventually destroyed by floods in the winter of 1851/2 to be replaced in 1854 by a five arch steel bridge , one arch of which embodied a "drawbridge" to allow passage of ships along the river. In 1883 this "drawbridge" section was converted to a swing bridge, the turntable platform being still evident beside the river outside the King's Head public house. By 1932, largely due to the increasing use of the motor vehicle and delays in finalising an Upton bye pass road , the traffic delays experienced at Upton were becoming intolerable. The reason was that the river was navigable and the western span of the bridge had to be continually opened to let vessels through. The swing portion was the responsibility of the Severn Commission and a bridgekeeper had to be employed. Also there were speed and weight restrictions for the bridge traffic itself, controlled by traffic lights manually operated by the bridge keeper.
Various plans were drawn up between 1934 to 1937 to solve the traffic problem, ranging from just the replacement of the span sections of the existing bridge (the cheapest option but the sole responsibility of an impoverished Severn Commission) to resurrection of an earlier Ministry of Transport/County Council scheme (for which some land had already been purchased) to build a new, high level, single span bridge as part of an overall bye pass project for Upton.
With financial constraints in evidence, (as always!) the inevitable compromise was reached in 1937 when the Navigation Authority accepted a lower minimum clearance of 25 feet above mean summer water level for the centre third of the waterway. To cater for reasonable approach road gradients, the most acceptable site was then determined as some 90 yards upstream from the line of the then main road and 1854 bridge. The new approved scheme comprised a single span bridge, supported by piers in the river banks, thus not obstructing the waterway, and crossing the waterway centre line at a slightly oblique angle. New approach roads were necessary and, on the east bank, the final alignment necessitated construction of a reinforced viaduct so as not to impede the flow of flood waters which periodically inundated Fish Meadow and other land on that side of the river. On the west bank, the new approach road passed through an old graveyard and it was necessary to preserve the consecrated soil excavated and re inter it and the human remains found when excavating. As a consequence of the widening of Church Street to be the main road, stones from the demolished nave of the church were used to build the present wall surrounding the "Pepperpot" churchyard which itself was transformed into a garden. Thus the connection between church and bridge continues.
Contracts for the whole of the works were let in October 1937 to Thomas Vale and Sons Ltd. of Stourport, with steelwork by Horseley Bridge and Thomas Piggott Ltd. The works were completed and opened to traffic on 10th May 1940. The total contract for bridge, road and viaduct approaches, river bank and churchyard refurbishment including demolition of old bridge, tunnel for footpath on east bank had value of £69,000!
The bridge itself is of interest in as much as it is one of the last of riveted construction to be erected in England. This is because during the Second World War steel welding techniques advanced rapidly, led principally in the maritime field with the construction, in the USA, of "Liberty Ships". Towards the end of the war such ships were being completed in the amazingly short time of six weeks!
The bridge is of steel cantilever construction with three spans and is one of one hundred bridges now crossing the two hundred and twenty miles of the River Severn between its source at Plynlimon in Wales and new (1996) motorway bridge over the Severn estuary. The anchor spans at Upton are 85 feet 6 inches each, the cantilever arms 46 feet 1.5 inches each and the centre span 107 feet 9 inches. The result is a bridge of span between piers of 200 feet, or 61 metres. The bridge is of the through girder type, the main girders of variable depth, ranging from 7 feet 6 inches deep at mid span and anchorages to 11 feet 6 inches deep above the piers. Most main plates are 0.5 inches thick The roadway is 21 feet wide with two separate 6 feet wide footpaths cantilevered out from each side, all at a constant depth of 4 feet 6 inches below the main girder flanges. Approach gradients are 1 in 18 on a curve of 1,800 feet radius.
The piers are of identical design and supported on reinforced concrete piles driven into the river bed. Some problems were experienced with the subsoil and silt at the east bank as a result of which the foundation had to be strengthened during construction. The concrete abutments at the extreme end of each cantilever span form the anchors for the steelwork as in some conditions of loading the load on these is upwards.
Each of the two centre span girders of 45 tons weight was assembled at Sharpness Docks and towed up river to Upton on barges, then lifted into position by derricks positioned on each cantilever span end. It is a tribute to the makers that centre span was almost a perfect fit, requiring minimal adjustment when lifted into position.
When the old bridge was demolished it was found that the inner webs of the main girders had corroded completely away in large patches and it is something of a mystery how the structure withstood the heavy loads which passed over it. It is also of interest that historical continuity between old and new bridges was maintained, as the steps forming the river frontage downstream of the new bridge on the west bank are formed from the stone facing blocks recovered from the piers of the old bridge.
Clearly the new bridge was completed in the nick of time to provide good service during the Second World War for military movements across the river between the numerous military establishments around Malvern and district and the rest of England. Certainly it was considered important enough to warrant a bombing attempt and whilst straddled by a stick of four bombs falling in the river and the present caravan site on the east bank, it and the approach roads survived. (There is a local rumour that the pilot of the attacking plane knew the area, having been educated in Malvern.) After this the originally specified "seagull grey" finish was overpainted with a "camouflage" finish until the end of the war.
The bridge has since given good service for ever increasing traffic volumes and loads over the succeeding 57 years and will continue to do so up to the millennium and thereafter."
Journal of the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers ( Meeting 24th April 1941)
Copyright: Upton upon Severn Civic Society