A re-enactment of the opening ceremony of Chepstow Bridge has taken place to celebrate its bicentenary, exactly two hundred years to the day.
Organised by the Chepstow Festival working with the Institution of Civil Engineers, Chepstow Town Council, and Monmouthshire County Council, the event celebrated the importance of the bridge and the engineer who both designed and built it: John Urpeth Rastrick FRS (1780-1856). Chepstow Bridge was the third largest cast-iron arch road bridge in the world in 1816 and is now the largest cast-iron arch road bridge surviving from that period.
The bridge - still in use today and recently refurbished by Monmouthshire County Council and Gloucestershire County Council - was opened on 24th July 1816 with an elaborate Form of Ceremony: "Company to assemble in the Square at One O'clock. The procession. A pair of Clours. Band of Music. Solicitor. Magistrates walking abreast Seniors in the centre. Gentlemen, Farmers, Tradesmen, and others who may choose to join the Procession walking two by two."
The President of the Institution of Civil Engineers Sir John Armitt CBE FREng FICE FCG led the 2016 procession from Chepstow, taking the part of John Urpeth Rastrick in the re-enactment of the 1816 opening ceremony, with Chairman of ICE Wales Cymru David Rowlands CEng FICE; Chairman of ICE South West Kieren Couch EngTech MICE; Chairman of Monmouthshire County Council Councillor Jim Higginson; Chairman of Gloucestershire County Council Councillor Colin Hay; The Mayor of Bridgnorth Councillor Vanessa Voysey; and The Mayor of Chepstow Councillor Paul Pavia.
Sir John Armitt, said: "It is incredible to think that 200 years ago today a procession much like this took place to mark the opening of a remarkable and beautiful bridge, the design of which paved the way for cast iron road and rail bridges all over the world. This re-enactment of the 1816 opening ceremony, and unveiling of a commemorative plaque, is a touching tribute to the bridge and to John Urpeth Rastrick - a true engineering great. I feel honoured to have played the part of John, and to stand at the centre of this structure among the community it has served for so many years."
The Grade 1 listed bridge features five elegant Georgian Regency iron arches – which were cast at Bridgnorth in Shropshire where Rastrick was the Managing Partner and Engineer – and four piers. The total length of the bridge is 113 metres (372 feet) and the span of the centre arch is 34 metres (112 feet) and faced higher tides than any other bridge in the world until the Severn Bridge was built in 1966. Continuous ironwork over the piers was very rare and stylish at the time, indeed when most iron arch road and rail bridges were being built all over the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Chepstow Bridge was near 100 year old.
A civil and mechanical engineer, Rastrick is remembered today as a railway pioneer – he returned to making steam engines in 1817. He had earlier built Trevithick's 'Catch me who can' locomotive in 1808 and later in 1829 he built the first steam engine to run in the USA. Rastrick chaired the Judging Panel for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway's Rainhill Trials in 1829 where he awarded first prize to Stephenson's 'Rocket'. Rastrick built many railways in Britain including the London to Brighton Line in the 1840s and is known as "one of the most important engineers of his generation."
The procession stopped in the centre of the bridge for speeches by Sir John Armitt and Council representatives before performances by the Chepstow Singing Group and Chepstow Male Voice Choir. The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by Sir John Armitt.