Bridge opening became exciting family day out
FOR some it was the civil engineering feat of the century, a shining example of go-ahead modern Britain at its most inventive, a glimpse of the future.
For others it was their first experience of a new phenomenon, the motorway service station, a strange new world of stewed tea, sandwiches with curled-up edges and melamine- topped tables, all served up with an air of impersonal detachment.
We’re talking about the first Severn Bridge, which opened this week in 1966, and we’re talking about Aust Motorway Services.
The latter became familiar to numerous local folk who boarded Black and White coaches to take excursions to see the former. If you were one of them you’ll remember how it was.
Leaving home, you trundled down the new M5 motorway, then onto the M4 to arrive at Aust Services where everyone left the bus.
Once inside the cavernous interior, proudly claimed to be the largest public cafeteria in England, the picture windows framed a fine panorama of the new bridge, which on a mistless day could be seen in its entirety.
But before settling on a Fablonupholstered stool to take in the view, you had to negotiate the novelty of self service, something few people had encountered before.
In the experience of most, when you went into a café there was someone with a wraparound overall on the far side of the counter who poured out tea and put cakes on a plate for you.
Not so at Granada’s Aust Services. You helped yourself to tea from a machine, a concept that great numbers of people, particularly men, found completely baffling.
Next, if you fancied a snack (or Snax as they were labelled) you had approach a cabinet, with a name like Food-o-matic, of glass and plastic with
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banks of little doors behind which were pre-prepared sandwiches.
The adventurous sometimes managed to arrive at the cashier’s till with what they wanted.
Many more found the notion of serving yourself too daunting and gave up.
Next came the high spot of the excursion as passengers re-boarded the coach to drive over the Severn Bridge, soaring aloft the mighty river to arrive on the other side in Wales.
And that was it. Compared to today’s taste for extreme sports, treks to Himalayan summits and long haul breaks to the Antarctic, a coach trip to the Severn Bridge seems tame in the extreme.
But it didn’t then. The Echo and Citizen produced special supplements in celebration of the bridge’s opening, and from them readers learned that the idea of a crossing over the Severn had been mooted for well over a century.
In the mid 19th century, Thomas Fulljames surveyed the site later cho
sen for the Severn Bridge as the location for a railway viaduct.
Fulljames lived at Ashleworth and had an office in Barton Street, Gloucester. He was also the architect responsible for various public buildings and churches in Gloucestershire, including St Matthews at Twigworth.
This project never materialised, but a railway bridge at Sharpness did, along with a tunnel under the Severn.
The Severn Road Bridge, which was opened by the Queen in 1966, was planned in 1946.
Options, included a floating bridge between Arlingham and Newnham, were suggested and abandoned on grounds of cost, which gave rise to the idea of the scheme being paid for by tolls.
Finally on June 5, 1958, local newspapers announced “Details of a scheme for the proposed £15 million Severn Bridge are revealed today”.
Amid the jubilation that accompanied the opening of the new bridge there was a touch of sympathy for a man whose life’s work it brought to an end.
Enoch Williams launched a ferry service between Aust and Beachley in 1931, giving up his job as chief architectural assistant to Newport Council to do so.
The idea for his Old Passage Ferry Company came about when he worked as a lorry driver on a route between Bristol and South Wales in the First World War.
He realised that a ferry service would save the transport time and costs involved in having to drive to Gloucester to cross the Severn.
The service was an immediate hit. The firm ran three craft named the Severn King, Severn Queen and Severn Princess and between them they carried some 25,000 cars a month.
The day the Severn Bridge opened Mr Williams’ ferry business was wound up.
He did receive financial compensation, but there was some sadness that this long established service had been swept away in the name of progress.
A bird’s eye view of the Severn Bridge
Enoch Williams owned the Aust ferry
The bridge featured in adverts
The bridge from Aust Services’ car park
A message from Barbara Castle MP, the Transport Minister
A trip to the bridge was a family outing