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Museum chronicling history of two of Wales’ most famous bridges visited by TV celeb

14 Aug 2022 5 minute read
Michael Portillo and John Cole; Menai Suspension Bridge image courtesy of Menai Heritage Centre

Dale Spridgeon, local democracy reporter

An Anglesey museum which chronicles the history of two of the world’s most famous bridges hosted TV celebrity Michael Portillo this week.

The former politician and star of Great British Railway Journeys dropped in at the Menai Heritage centre which celebrates the Menai Suspension and Britannia bridges.

Based at the Telford Centre the museum reveals the fascinating stories of the two bridges spanning the Menai Strait.

According to museum volunteer and trustee John Cole, “Michael visited the museum to learn about the history and the construction of the bridges.

“He later joined engineers to inspect the latest work being undertaken on the Menai Suspension Bridge.

“He went up in a cherry picker to the top of the Anglesey tower on the bridge.

“As part of safety upgrade work sections have been repainted and the majority of the bridge’s ‘hanging rods’ are being replaced.

“We were able to explain to him about the hanging rods and showed him pictures from when the bridge was built and how it originally looked.

“He was very interested in the museum, and to learn about the bridges and their history.

“It’s interesting for us now, with the latest repairs, we are able to work in conjunction with that, helping keep the story of the Menai Bridge bang up to date,” he added.

Artefacts

The Welsh Government recently announced that the UK Highways was carrying out improvements on the 200-year-old structure.

Cadw, the historic environment service of the Welsh government, is also monitoring the work on the listed structure.

The Menai Suspension Bridge was built by Thomas Telford and was started in 2019. When it opened in 1826, it had the longest span in the world at 176m.

The Britannia Bridge, built by Robert Stephenson, was started in 1846 and was completed four years later in March 1850.

The museum houses interesting artefacts, as oil paintings, drawings, photographs, donated items, tools, iron work and bridge building equipment.

It also offers activities for children, including model bridge building projects and walks and talks.

As the 200th year anniversary of the completion of the Menai Suspension Bridge looms in 2026, the centre says it is hoping to gear up its activities.

It is calling for more people to drop by, especially youngsters over the summer holidays.

Older members of the community are also welcome, and the museum is “desperately appealing” for more volunteers to help run it.

Lions on guard by the Britannia Bridge Courtesy Menai Heritage Centre

Rewarding

Mervyn Jones says he thoroughly enjoys being a part of the museum team and is in his second season as a volunteer.

The retired schools (Estyn) inspector and a chief education officer for Wrexham City Borough Council said “I thoroughly enjoy giving my time to the project.

“I find it rewarding and interesting to be involved with a community project like this one. I’d recommend it to others to give it a go.”

The centre is always on the lookout for donations or loans of any items relating to the building of the bridges, including people’s stories and anecdotes, of  family connections to the bridges.

The heritage centre’s founder is 83-year-old Jean Baker, who started the heritage project some 25 years ago.

“We started a group to help bring tourism to the area,” said Jean, who formerly ran nurse training schools, and was also a Welsh National Opera singer.

“It was our mission to help people understand the importance of the two bridges and keep the stories alive.

“The bridges not only helped shape the history of the area but also had a national impact with things like transport, trade and politics.

“They opened up access to Parliament, when the Act of Union came in, in 1801, Irish politicians needed to get to Westminster.

“The bridges speeded things up by providing a more direct route to London to Holyhead.”

“The bridges themselves were massive, they were globally important too, and the men who worked on them were incredible engineers.”

Jean Baker founder of the Menai Heritage Centre with what is believed to be Thomas Telford_’s desk image by Dale Spridgeon

Stories

In the museum, is a travelling box believed to have been used by Thomas Telford, donated by a local family.

She added “We’ve been very lucky to receive some fabulous items to display, including the travelling box.

“They help bring the stories alive.

“We are always keen to hear from anyone who may have things they like to donate. There must be lots of things relating to the bridges still in attics and sheds in the area.

“We’d love more people to come and see the museum and we are desperate for more volunteers to come and join us.”

Menai Heritage is an independent charity that relies on the support of sponsors and grant providing bodies


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

You can have this story, I was asleep on a ferry from Ireland the time the Britannia Bridge went on fire. Being asleep, I missed the announcement that the boat had been diverted and that we would disembark in Heysham, Lancashire. Imagine my surprise to find I was in England and my hitch home had just got a lot longer…

One of the two witnesses
One of the two witnesses
1 month ago

Sleb really is a monicker handed out like cheap plastic toys in sugary cereal boxes isn’t it? Portillo was the Raab of his day and whilst he is now every trainspotters favourite pink trousered mustard jacketed uncle now, his political career assisted Thatcherite policy destructive to Cymru. I’m glad he had a lovely day out at the museum, but I would be perfectly happy never having known about it. Honestly, you want to write about the museum, write about the museum. No need to go starry eyed just because some ex-politician with a National Front (sorry Trust) membership card had… Read more »

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