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Bowstring Bridge

Braunstone Gate Bridge

Bowstring Bridge

Primary Photographer(s): Public Photograph Compilation (PPC)

Bridge Documented: February 4, 2010

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Leicester: East Midlands, England: United Kingdom
Construction Date and Builder / Engineer
1898 By Builder/Contractor: Henry Lovatt of Wolverhampton, England
Rehabilitation Date
Not Available or Not Applicable
Main Span Length
129.6 Feet (39.5 Meters)
Structure Length
173.0 Feet (52.7 Meters)
Roadway Width
Not Available
1 Main Span(s)
Inventory Number
Not Applicable

Historic Significance Rating (HSR)
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Bridge Documentation

This bridge no longer exists!

Note: This bridge was not photo-documented/inspected by the HistoricBridges.org team. Narratives are compiled using information and photos offered on the internet. Photo Credit For Above Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattots/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This historic bridge was demolished in 2009 despite widespread community support for preservation.

A HistoricBridges.org Global Heritage Bridge

This bridge is located far beyond the HistoricBridges.org team's current area of coverage as dictated by limitations in time and funding. However, this bridge has global significance and it is also critically important to understand and discuss this bridge in order to create a clearer context and understanding of various bridges that have been visited and documented by the HistoricBridges.org team in North America. As a result, HistoricBridges.org is offering photos of this bridge from legally available internet sources in order to facilitate the narrative and discussion offered below.

About The Bowstring Bridge And Its Significance

The Braunstone Gate Bridge, most commonly known as the Bowstring Bridge, was one of the rarest and most unique bridges in the United Kingdom and beyond. It had an extremely high degree of engineering and technological significance and was also historically significant as a rare surviving piece of the old Great Central Railway, much of which is today destroyed.

The Bowstring Bridge is complex bridge that includes a variety of spans including through plate girder approach spans, a deck truss span, and a through truss span. The through truss span was the most significant portion of the bridge, with the deck truss being the second most important portion. These two truss spans are both extremely rare and significant for their display of rare or unique variations of an uncommon truss configuration, the Double-Intersection Pratt, commonly called the Whipple truss configuration. Nearly all known Whipple truss bridges are through truss bridges and are trapezoidal truss bridges. The truss spans of the Bowstring Bridge are neither.

The deck truss span over a portion of the River Soar was a Double-Intersection Pratt/Whipple deck truss. Because of the deck truss configuration, the span was rare and significant. HistoricBridges.org lacks a complete inventory of all bridges in Europe, but  there are no known truss bridges with this design in the United States.

The most important part of the bridge however was the through truss span over Western Blvd. and another portion of the River Soar. The through truss configuration was a Whipple, but the top chord was curved.  It was this curved top chord that gave the bridge its name as a bowstring bridge. Having a curved top chord on a truss bridge was in its own right extremely rare, since most trusses that are not trapezoidal are polygonal with straight beams being laid at angles on the top chord to form an overall curved shape. HistoricBridges.org lacks a complete inventory of all bridges in Europe, but there are no known truss bridges with the Whipple design in the United States that have either a curved or polygonal top chord. The truss was yet even further significant and rare because of its vertical end posts which are less common than sloped end posts. Aside from the truss configuration, the second most important element of significance was the extremely unusual design of skew that this truss bridge exhibited. Not only did the bridge have a heavy skew, the two truss lines contained a truss of differing length. Each side of the bridge was a different length! The eastern truss is 173 Feet (52.7 Meters) and the western truss is 129.6 Feet (39.5 meters). This is an extremely unusual design feature. It results in each end of the bridge having a different skew angle. The north end of the bridge had a skew 30.5 degrees, and the south end had a skew of 66.5 degrees. A skewed bridge is a bridge that required more effort to design and construct, thus they have more historic significance due to their representation of a significant engineering and fabrication achievement. As a bridge that is not only skewed, but has trusses of differing length on each side, this bridge represents an unusual and complex engineering achievement.

The composition of the truss spans was also significant because it  is not a traditional composition. The truss diagonal members were  plates rather than built-up beams. This design is not unique, but it is quite uncommon. It did tend to be present on railroad bridges more frequently than highway bridges.

The bridge was also significant for having a beautiful and complex substructure. The substructure was composed of brick and included a variety of methods to support the bridge including abutments, arches, and even buildings under the bridge.

Finally, historic significance of the bridge was derived from the bridge's excellent historic integrity and lack of alterations. Most notably were that the bridge retains all of its original lattice railings, and also that the flooring system of the bridge had not been altered. The flooring system included built up beams and also a riveted steel plate base for the deck. The trusses were unaltered, with original members, rivets, and other structural elements all in place.

The bridge was also a compliment to the historic deck plate girder highway bridge (which includes beautiful cast iron railings) that  crossed River Soars directly under the through truss span.

Leicester Does It The American Way: Demolition

HistoricBridges.org has for years made the case that the United States has an extremely poor overall commitment to historic bridge preservation. Typically, European countries, and particularly Great Britain, set a good example by carefully maintaining and preserving many historic bridges in a way that maintains the heritage while also retaining a functional crossing. In many cases, the United States would do well to look to bridge preservation success in Europe for inspiration. However this is absolutely not the case with the Bowstring Bridge in Leicester. Instead, with the Bowstring Bridge, it would appear that Leicester took a look at the United States... and indeed perhaps at the state of Pennsylvania, which exhibits the worst preservation track record in the United States, and decided to follow their examples. However, it would actually be insulting even to Pennsylvania to say that what Leicester did with the Bowstring Bridge was comparable to what goes on in the United States. HistoricBridges.org is unaware of any other single historic bridge demolition anywhere that occurred with a bridge displaying the combination of historic significance, beauty, feasibility of restoration, potential reuses, and most importantly the community support that the Bowstring Bridge had.  Who is to blame for this atrocity against transportation heritage? It would appear to rest nearly exclusively in the hands of the Leicester City Council as well as De Montfort University, which is located near the former site of the bridge. Both the Leicester City Council and De Montfort University are the shame of Great Britain.

One of the most disappointing aspects of this bridge's demolition is that is was supported by De Montfort University. Universities should never entities that advocate the destruction of heritage. In fact, universities are uniquely equipped to develop, support, and integrate bridge preservation as part of their mission to educate and research. This has been done successfully a number of times in the United States. The preservation of a historic bridge provides a unique opportunity for university faculty and students to participate, contribute to, and learn from the preservation process. Also, the support of heritage demolition by a university goes against the spirit of enriched culture that universities traditionally bring to communities.

One of the most disturbing problems with the fate of this bridge is that English Heritage refused to include the bridge as a Listed Structure. They claimed that the bridge was not old enough nor was it innovative. Nearly exactly this type of language is used frequently in the United States to excuse the demolition of countless riveted metal truss bridges built in the 1920s and 1930s, despite the fact that such bridges represent a technology that has died out decades ago and will never return. However, even the United States with its flawed methods of assessing the value and significance of historic bridges does not stoop as low as English Heritage did in finding the Bowstring Bridge not eligible for being Listed. There do appear to have been some other bridges of this design built on the Great Central Railway, but they all appear to have been demolished. Further, outside of the Great Central Railway, the design of the bridge is so unusual that it defies classification. It would be nice to English Heritage provide a list of surviving bridges that are similar to the Bowstring Bridge, to demonstrate how common its design is.

A bridge inspection report from 2005 described 50% section loss on portions of the truss and the report claimed the bridge was only capable of supporting its own weight. However, at the time of demolition, construction-related vehicles and equipment were placed on the bridge. This calls into question the report's findings. Further, 50% section loss was not present on the entire bridge, it was only present on some isolated parts of the bridge. Photos of the truss superstructure show that the majority of the truss was either in good condition, or in a condition that was easy to repair. As such, this was a bridge that was not only feasible to restore, it would have been easy to restore, particularly for continuing to carry the non-motorized traffic that had been using the bridge prior to closure. These facts were reflected in an estimate that the bridge could have been restored for non-motorized use for the same cost of demolition. This statistic is not unheard of and is reflected in other historic bridges elsewhere. It is this fact that is so stunning. Demolition of this bridge was a complete waste. It did not save any money and instead simply resulted in a loss of heritage and beauty.

Finally, the most significant reason the bridge should have been preserved was the community support. In the United States, strong, organized community support is usually the strongly catalyst for a decision to preserve a historic bridge. Sadly, that support is not always there or it lacks organization, and this is partially why historic bridges frequently get demolished. However, the Bowstring Bridge did have extremely strong community support with excellent organization. The level of support and organization for the Bowstring Bridge was higher than anything normally seen in the United States... organization and support to a level that in the United States even the state of Pennsylvania with its lacking preservation commitment probably would have decided to preserve a bridge with that level of support. Unfortunately, the group of citizens fighting for preservation faced strong opposition from the Leicester City Council who was supposed to serve the public. Apparently, there is no law in the United Kingdom similar to a United States law that requires public meetings and forces a historic bridge owner to seek public input when a historic bridge is planned for replacement. As a result, Leicester City Council abandoned democracy and held closed door council meetings to determine the fate of the bridge. Community support for the preservation of the historic bridge was so strong, that when the bridge was demolished, a massive barrier system including perimeter-wide prison razor wire, CCTV camera systems, and related warning signs were placed around the bridge apparently because of fears that the demolition project might be sabotaged. There was also a woman who chained herself to the bridge's trusses for twelve hours in protest of demolition. She was arrested, and upon posting bail was given what could be called a "historic bridge restraining order" which forbid her from going within 200 yards of the bridge! The final display of widespread support for the bridge's preservation was the wide variety (and tone) of signs protesting the demolition having been taped onto the barrier around the bridge demolition side. Photos of these signs are present in the photo gallery for this bridge.

About This Bridge's Public Photograph Compilation (PPC)

Since the HistoricBridges.org team has not yet been able to visit and photo-document this historic bridge in person, this bridge's photo gallery is composed of Public Photograph Compilations (PPCs), which are composed from select photos from public repositories like Flickr, and organized and combined into the familiar HistoricBridges.org photo gallery format. The photos are legally offered by HistoricBridges.org under the terms of a Creative Commons license. As required under the license, HistoricBridges.org hereby states that none of the photographers endorse HistoricBridges.org and its ideas, nor are they affiliated with HistoricBridges.org in any way. Learn more about HistoricBridges.org's Public Photograph Compilations here. Also please note that most photos in this Public Photograph Compilations are overview photos and the usual comprehensive set of detail photos associated with a HistoricBridges.org photo-documentation will not be present.


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