Building the Severn Bridge

The austerity of the later 1940s early 1950s meant that little happened on the ground during that period. At the end of 1960, the Minister of Transport made a public statement about the M4 and road needs in Wales.  And work started on the foundations for the Severn Crossing in 1961.

The distribution of contracts.

The construction work was divided into a series of contracts. The tender competition for the foundations was won by John Howard and Company and let on the 8 March 1961. It included construction of the main piers and the main cable anchorages of the Severn Bridge, and also the approach viaduct and an access road on the Aust side of the Severn. Extensive temporary works were designed, erected and ultimately removed by the contractor.

A consortium of contractors built the Severn Bridge superstructure. It comprised Sir William Arrol and Co Ltd of Glasgow, Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Co Ltd of Darlington, and Dorman Long Bridge and Engineering Ltd of Middlesbrough. Cleveland Bridge and Engineering built the foundations and superstructure of the Wye Bridge and Viaduct, under a separate contract.

Severn Bridge Foundations and Anchorages

Foundations and Anchorage on East Side

This aerial view shows the main foundation elements on the east side of the crossing looking westwards at low water. In order east to west, it shows the cutting in the Aust cliff, the temporary access gantry adjacent to Aust viaduct works, the construction of the east anchorage and the continuation of the incomplete access gantry to the east main pier works on the limestone outcrop only exposed at low water springs. The working platform from which the pier works were constructed was put in place by using a floating jack-up platform which had been removed at the time of this photograph.

The construction of a suspension bridge starts with the foundations and towers. The main suspension cables are firmly anchored to abutments at both ends of the bridge and are held up by the towers, to provide the bridge with its iconic shape. The bridge deck is supported by hangers suspended from these cables.

The two main towers were each built on a boat-shaped pier 40 m (130 ft)  long by 11.5m (38 ft) wide, with cut-water ends. Each tower would consist of two full height vertical steel legs 23.5 m (77 ft) apart, centre to centre, joined by three steel portal beams. Both piers were constructed from temporary jetties that were built out into the estuary from the respective shore.

The Aust pier is founded on a hard limestone outcrop that is only exposed at the lowest spring tides. It is formed of solid concrete and built high enough to protect the steelwork of the tower legs from splashing by salt water.

The Main Foundation Works on the West Side

This aerial image shows the main foundation works on the west side of the crossing at near full tide The ferry slipway can be seen with a ferry discharging cars. In the foreground can be seen the temporary works used for the construction of the west pier of the Severn Bridge. The temporary access gantry leading to the working platform, with its three derrick cranes, can be seen adjacent to the two circular cofferdams inside which the excavation for the pier bases was carried out at all stages of the tide. All these temporary works were installed in the intertidal periods when the clean river bed surface was accessible right out to the cofferdams for about an hour at low water spring tides. In the top left hand corner of the image can be seen the growing concrete block of the west anchorage of the bridge.

The Beachley pier is located at a point, as far offshore as possible, where the top of the limestone was expected to be at a depth of 20 ft (6m) below river bed level that is exposed at low tide. When further borings were taken at the start of construction, it was found that there was not a good limestone bedrock layer available at this point. This pier has therefore had to be supported by two massive cylindrical concrete bases, one under each of the twin legs of the tower, each 18 m (60 ft) in diameter and founded about 35 ft (10 m) below river bed level, through the marls and on the top of steeply inclined hard carboniferous mud-stones. The pier has been constructed across the top of these two bases, with extensions at both ends to provide the cut-waters. Cables were set into the mass concrete of both piers. Later, they would be used to hold down the bases of the steel towers as they were being erected on the piers in a free-standing mode.

The anchorages, which secure and hold firm the ends of the main cables, are massive reinforced concrete blocks, each weighing about 100,000 tonnes. The one on the Aust side was constructed on another outcrop of limestone that is exposed at low tide, about 105 metres (345 ft) from the Aust cliff. The Beachley anchorage was constructed in open excavation through the soil of the Beachley peninsular and it was keyed into the underlying limestone.

For more information on the Severn Bridge Foundations and Anchorages, Click Here

The Aust Viaduct

Part of Aust Viaduct loaded on barge

The short length of construction that is required to complete the structural element of the Crossing beyond the eastern abutment of the Severn Bridge at Aust, is known as the Aust Viaduct. It is very different, in structural content, from any other item of viaduct, comprising just three short lengths of twin box girder supported on steel columns on concrete bases and joined with steel cross girders, and with a composite, cast in-situ, concrete deck slab. The adjacent image shows one of the box girder units being taken across the estuary from Chepstow to Aust, travelling on a barge. Transporting the sections for the Aust tower across the river, with its difficult tides and water levels, required careful planning.

Severn Bridge Towers

The twin columns of each tower were built as hollow steel boxes,17 ft x12 ft (5 m x 3.6m) in plan cross section, standing on the concrete foundations. The many individual steel plates in each face of the towers, up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick, were stiffened, trial assembled and fitted with machined flanges at both ends so that they could be bolted and stressed together on site. Every 14 ft (4.25 m) vertically, there is a thick horizontal plate (diaphragm) bolted to all four panel end plates but with openings for the lift and vertical access ladder. Three portal beams were inserted between the legs of each tower, one just below the road deck level, one at the top and one between these two, to produce a strong and laterally resilient structure.

Construction of Tower, Climbing Tower Crane in place

Completed Towers with hanging Cat Walks attached

The steelwork for the towers was fabricated in sections in Glasgow, trial erected, then taken apart and transported to a stock yard in Chepstow. Transporting the sections for the Aust tower across the river, with its difficult tides and water levels, required careful planning.

A special climbing structure was devised to assist in the construction of the towers. It included a platform that could climb up the 56 ft (18 m) high tower sections as they were being built. It carried its own crane to lift the sections of the tower. It was designed to operate in high winds and it weighed 160 tonnes. As the towers got taller, the effects of wind on the lifting operation became more severe. On two or three occasions, no lifting could be carried out for two days.

For more information on the construction of the Severn Bridge Towers, Click here

Spinning the Main Cables

Each main cable consists of 8,322 individual galvanised wires, each the thickness of a pencil. The total length of these wires is approximately 29,000 km (18,000 miles).

The spinning of the main cables began by stretching two wire ropes across the river, by boat. The ropes were then lifted to the tops of the towers, one on each side of the bridge, and their ends were made firm in the anchorages. They were used to haul out further wire ropes to support the access catwalks and the overhead supports for the cable spinning gear. Winches were set up on the Beachley anchorage, one to each side, to operate the two 3.5 km (2.2 miles) long continuous haulage ropes that would pull the 16,644 wires across the estuary to make up the two main cables.

View from one of the Cat Walks of a pulley taking two bights (four wires) across the estuary. The picture shows quite a few strands of wire already across, beneath the spinning wheel.

The completed sheaf of wires is tightly bound to provide the finished cable 

The process of building up the main catenary Cables continues; each cable consists of 8322 individual wires

  As the spinning wheel passed back and forth, high up on the towers and cat walks, 24 hours a day and in all weathers, workers placed the new wires in combs to prevent them becoming tangled. Each new set of wires was fixed to the anchorage blocks and adjusted to exactly the correct length. After checking the completed 500 mm (20 inch) diameter cables, the individual wires were compacted into a single cable that was tightly wrapped with galvanised wire before painting. Finally, the hangers were suspended from clamps on the cables, ready to attach the deck sections. The engineering feat achieved so far was already most impressive but the most risky task was about to start.

For more information on spinning the main cables, Click here

Suspending the Severn Bridge Deck

Imaginative engineering had produced a revolutionary design for the girder that would act as the stiffening girder and the road deck. It was fabricated off-site, in nearly 2000 stiffened panels and then assembled and matched end-to-end on slipways on the River Wye in Chepstow into 88 sections, each 60 ft (18 m) long. Each section was constructed to be capable of floating on the river, like a pontoon.  Section by section, they were launched into the river, towed to the bridge site, and then lifted into position. The work was heavily dependent on the tides and winds.

To handle the sections in the swiftly flowing river, a special craft – the Severn Knave – was built to push them one by one into the correct position. It could manoeuvre itself in all directions and hold the sections, floating on the river, in the position required.
Preparatory trials, using models of the deck sections in a water tank, concluded that erection could only take place fortnightly, as the tides would only allow time for 3 to 6 sections to be erected each fortnight. And, of course, bad weather could further restrict progress in these difficult conditions.

The skill of the skipper of the Severn Knave proved to be paramount in the positioning and the lifting of the deck sections. The process involved collecting a deck section from its moorings in the Wye, pushing it out to the centre of the river, adjusting the position by varying the engine thrust direction, lowering lifting tackles from the main cable and attaching them to the deck section, winching clear of the water, washing down to remove mud and salt from the underside, and then final lifting to the required height and attaching it to its hangers and the previous section of deck.

The sequence for lifting and incorporating individual sections into the emerging deck started at the centre of the main span and continued in either direction, in balance, towards the towers. The centre span deck was completed before any sections were lifted up to the side spans. Completion of the deck heralded the final stages of this striking engineering story. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

For more information on suspending the severn bridge deck, Click here

Building the Wye Bridge and Viaducts


At about the time that the foundations of the Severn Bridge were being completed, work began on this important series of structures that are located immediately adjacent to the western end of the bridge. From there, a viaduct has been built across the Beachley peninsular to connect to the Wye Bridge, with a further section of viaduct, beyond, terminating on an abutment on the Welsh shore.

Both sections of viaduct were built with steel box girder decks resting on steel box trestles a modest 210 ft (64 m) apart. The Wye Bridge itself has a main span of 770 ft (235 m) and side spans of 285 ft (87 m). The cable-stayed box girder deck of the bridge was supported by a simple steel tower, or pylon, in the middle of deck at each main bridge pier, with a tight cluster of 20 inclined cables stretching down from the top of each pylon and into anchorages formed in deck boxes, equally spaced from the base of the pylons approximately 260 ft (80 m) from the pylon locations. This configuration meant the deck was provided with vertical support at two points in the main span resulting in three approximately equal lengths of deck between main piers. The outer backstays were anchored in the deck near the penultimate viaduct piers which were designed as hold-downs with pin connections top and bottom.

Foundations for the Wye Bridge and Viaducts

The foundations for the viaducts are simple twin reinforced concrete shafts (one under each of the splayed legs of the trestles) that were sunk through softer soils, down to limestone beneath. The foundations of the main piers of the Wye Bridge each comprise twin hollow shells (caissons) that were sunk through the very soft mud of the river bank, to limestone some 50 ft (15 m) below and then filled with concrete. Each pair of twin foundations for the viaducts were joined together with a concrete tie beam below ground level that linked across their tops, to resist the outward forces in the splayed trestle legs. At the main piers, a reinforced concrete cross-head beam was cast on top of the caissons and it remains visible above high water level.

Construction of the Viaducts

A single cross section was adopted, for both the bridge deck of the Wye crossing and the linking viaducts, to provide continuity from the Beachley anchorage of the Severn Bridge to the Gwent abutment in Wales. Splayed steel, hinged trestles carry the viaduct across the Beachley Peninsula in ten spans, varying from 182 feet (55 m) to 210 feet (64 m). There are a further two viaduct spans of 210 feet (64 m) between the western side of the Wye Bridge and the Gwent abutment, where the new structure also crosses the main railway line into South Wales.

Construction of the Beachley viaduct commenced at a fixed point in the middle of the peninsula and proceeded simultaneously in both directions from there – up to the back of the Beachley anchorage of the Severn Bridge, and down to the eastern bank of the Wye. Construction on the Gwent side commenced at the western end where the viaduct was fixed to the fairly massive concrete abutment located on a limestone outcrop.

The viaduct deck was constructed, incrementally, by adding new units to the end of a developing cantilever. Starting from a pier or trestle on which a deck unit had been made secure, each new section of deck would be welded to the exposed edge of its predecessor. This sequence would be repeated until the end of the developing cantilever reached the next trestle. There, it would be raised up sufficiently to allow the next unit to be welded in sequence, this time on top of the latest trestle – and then the whole cycle could be repeated.

Construction of the Wye Bridge

The procedure that had been used to erect the viaduct deck (see previous paragraph) was also applicable to much of the work on the Wye Bridge. Never the less, a girder made up solely of deck units similar to those employed on the viaduct, would not have been stiff enough, on its own, to cope with being cantilevered out for half the main span of the bridge (i.e., 385 ft (117.5m), compared with 210 ft (64m) for each viaduct span). Considerable additional stiffening would be needed. The permanent design solution to erect a single pylon, or tower, on the centre of each of the main span piers and support the deck with cables was also used to build it. Without the use of the pylons and cables, the front end of the emerging box girder deck would have drooped alarmingly before reaching mid span, and the structure would undoubtedly have suffered the same fate as four other box girder bridges across the world that collapsed while under construction during the following decade. Bridges of this type, that rely upon the use of cantilevers in their construction, are always particularly vulnerable while under construction.

This simple and elegant solution allows the Wye Bridge to be classified as a cable stayed structure, albeit a very simple example. A much more complex member of the genre would grace the Severn Estuary itself, just 5 kilometres downstream, before the end of the Twentieth Century.

For more information on Building the Wye Bridge and Viaducts, Click Here

Finishing Operations

The completed Severn Bridge from the Beachley side

Before the crossing could be opened, further operations had still to be completed, including surfacing the roadways, erecting the safety fences, fixing the parapets, installing lighting, and the final painting.

To prevent corrosion in the harsh environment, all of the steelwork was protected by the application several coats of special high quality paint. To ensure that this did not peel off, all of the external steel had to be thoroughly blast cleaned and spray-coated with metallic zinc before the paint was applied.


Attention to the safety of staff associated with the construction and to the safety of the public was of prime importance – construction on such a difficult site is, by its very nature, an activity fraught with risk. The accident rate during construction was low but sadly four men lost their lives in the construction period, albeit in two different work-boat accidents rather than in the course of construction work. Two further fatalities occurred at the very end of the project, during finishing works inside the towers which resulted in the emission of toxic fumes.

British Engineering leads the World

The Severn Bridge was opened by her Majesty the Queen on 8 September 1966. It was the lightest suspension bridge in the world for its span and loading, and the main span was the seventh longest in the world. The Wye Crossing was also technically advanced in its design and construction. Altogether a highly significant example of British civil engineering and a remarkable achievement on the part of all those involved.

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