Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 21, 2022
Webpage updated: May 22, 2022




The Tamar Road Bridge between Plymouth and Saltash.

The Tamar Road Bridge between Plymouth and Saltash.
From a postcard.

The river Tamar has long been the boundary between the counties of Cornwall and Devon.  Indeed, to a Cornishman it is the boundary between Cornwall and England.  The river was so wide it could not be crossed by a bridge so initially watermen from both sides of the river would transport travellers in their boats for a fee.  A ferry service was later instituted between the Town of Saltash, on the Cornish side, and a small patch of Saint Stephens parish that was officially within the county of Cornwall but sat on the Devon side of the river, adjacent to the parish of Saint Budeaux.  This became the Saltash Ferry.

The first plans for a bridge across the river were unveiled to Plymouth City Council on Thursday July 24th 1930.  The report was compiled by Mr F W Fitzsimons, an engineer from the Ministry of Transport.  He suggested five possible sites: Devil's Point to Cremyll; Devonport to Cremyll; Devonport (Albert Road) to Torpoint; Bull Point to a point south of Saltash; alongside the existing Royal Albert Bridge between Saint Budeaux and Saltash, which he narrowed down to the locations at Torpoint and alongside the railway bridge.

At a Plymouth City Council meeting on Tuesday April 14th 1931 the proposals went to a free vote.  It was considered that a road bridge would be of no benefit to Devonport or Plymouth and the proposals were voted against.  The following morning's Western Morning News carried the headline "Death-blow to Tamar Bridge Project".

Although matters were laid to rest, traffic down to Cornwall continued to increase and on Wednesday December 13th 1950 a joint meeting of Plymouth City Council, Cornwall County Council and Saltash Borough Council was held in Plymouth to discuss the traffic situation.  Plymouth had changed its mind and the meeting sent resolutions to the Ministry of Transport requesting that a road bridge be built AND that a third floating bridge be provided on the Torpoint Ferry.

In 1956 Messrs Mott, Hay and Anderson, consulting civil engineers of London, presented a report giving options for 2 bridges crossing and 2 tunnels underneath the river Tamar.

The first Tamar Bridge Act received the Royal Assent on July 31st 1957.  The closing date for tenders for the construction of the suspension Bridge was June 9th 1959 and the contract was awarded to Messrs Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Limited, of Darlington, County Durham,  on June 19th 1959.  The estimated cost was 1,345,556.  It was to be paid for entirely by Plymouth City Council and Cornwall County Council and was to receive no contribution from the Government.  The Bridge and the Torpoint Ferry were to be owned and managed by the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee.  The cost of maintenance was to be funded by tolls for al motor vehicles.

An unofficial opening took place on Tuesday October 24th 1961.  The first bus to cross the Bridge was Western National Omnibus Company Limited fleet number 860 (registration number JUO 964) on the 5.30am service 76 from Plymouth Bus Station to Callington.

The official opening of the Tamar Road Bridge was performed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at 3.30pm on Thursday April 26th 1962.  Initially the single tolls were 3 shillings for motor cars, and 14 shillings for motor lorries and other large vehicles.  Return tickets could be purchased for 4 shillings 6 pence or 1 respectively.

A second Tamar Bridge Act was given the Royal Assent on February 22nd 1979.

At that time the United Kingdom was a member of the European Union and a Directive from that body required all road bridges to be capable of carrying lorries of up to 40-tons weight.  An examination of the Tamar Road Bridge found that it was only capable of carrying lorries up to 17-tons.  A feasibility study was undertaken for a completely new bridge crossing the river Tamar but as the estimated cost was 300 million it was shelved.  Another reason given for that action was that the Bridge was carrying around 40,000 vehicles per day and it was considered that the Bridge should not be closed while any work was being undertaken.

It seemed that the only solution was to strengthen the road deck and add two cantilever road decks on either side for use while the main section was being strengthened.  A third Act of Parliament was obtained, it received the Royal Assent on July 28th 1998.  The work was designed by Messrs Hyder Consulting, a Welsh business, and the construction contract was given to the successors of the original contractor.  The new main deck consisted of 82 orthotropic panels, each measuring 20 feet by 49 feet and weighing 20 tons.  The reconstruction was completed in 2001 at a cost of 34 million  and it was found that the reconstructed Bridge was 25 tons lighter than the original one.  It should be mentioned that the Tamar Road Bridge project was the first suspension bridge in the world to be widened using cantilevers and the first suspension bridge in the world to have been widened and strengthened while still carrying traffic.  The project won the British Construction Industry Civil Engineering Aard in 2002 and was one of the finalists for the Prime Minister's Better Public Building Award that same year.

Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne re-opened the Bridge on Friday April 26th 2002, forty years after her grandmother had performed the opening ceremony.  She again visited the Bridge on Tuesday December 6th 2011 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary.

A visitor centre was added in 2019.

There are two side spans each 374 feet in length and one central span of 1,099 feet in length (the same source also quotes 1,848 feet!).  The two concrete towers which support the combined weight of 850 tons of steel cables are 220 feet in height.  The support cables are both 2,200 feet in length and were constructed by Messrs British Ropes Limited.  The road deck is made out of concrete covered with steel plate of 0.79 inches and then 7.9 inches of standard road tarmac.  The roadway is 30 feet in width with an additional 6 feet on either side for pedestrians. 

The original part of the Bridge has three lanes, the central one being used inwards to Plymouth during the morning rush period and outwards to Cornwall in the evening.  During the day it can be manually changed as traffic requires.  The cantilever lane on the north, up river, side is used for local traffic from Saltash towards Plymouth while the southern, down river, cantilever lane is used by cyclists and pedestrians only.  They and motorcyclists pay not tolls.  Tolls are only charged to traffic coming from Cornwall into Plymouth.  At present (2022) they are: cars 2 each; vehicles with 2-axles over 3.5 tonnes, 4.90; 3-axles, 8 and 4-axles, 11.