Listening to the roar of traffic on the A4127, I wondered just how many drivers were aware that they were passing over a major engineering achievement of the 19th century. I had parked my car in the Great Western Industrial park just off Windmill Lane, Southall. Continuing on foot, turning right out the park and just a short 5 minute walk along an anonymous stretch of suburban road I found myself at the junction of Windmill Lane and Tenterden Road facing this sign announcing a miracle of the Victorian era – The Three Bridges.
Three Bridges (scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979) is a wonderful example of a transportation rarity known as a Triple Bypass – three transport routes built directly on top of each other. As you pass over the top of the intersection by road and you look down immediately underneath you see the Hanwell section of the Grand Union Canal and further below the canal the Great Western & Brentford Railway Line. Despite the name, in fact there are only two bridges – the road and canal aqueduct!
Windmill Lane takes it’s name from the painting made in 1806 by Brentford Artist J W Turner of Southall Mill next to the Grand Junction Canal completed in 1794 (now called the Grand Union Canal) which stood on the south western side of the original canal bridge.
By the mid-19th century, commercial pressures for quick transportation of goods by rail, meant that his peaceful rural idyll and the views from nearby Osterley Park – at that time owned by the Jersey family (and comprising 100 acres of parkland and lakes surrounded by 200 acres of active farmland) were under threat. A solution needed to be found.
The Creation of 3 Bridges
Engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel (born 9 April 1806) was commissioned by Great Western & Brentford Railway to survey where and how the railway should pass beneath the canal. Brunel decided on the location at the intersection of the road and canal. Work began in 1856 and completed in 1859. The Brentford Spur Railway connecting the Great Western main line to the new Brentford Docks was opened in the same year.
Herapath’s Railway Journal describes the construction as follows “The canal had to be diverted by means of a cast iron trough 8 foot in depth. The towing path consisted of cast iron roadway plates bracketed out from the side of this trough. The whole structure was borne upon powerful brickwork abutments, supported in the middle of a central pier. 140 tons of cast ironwork were used in this work and the cost of it’s construction was about £5000”.
In those days the canal network was still of vital importance – transporting goods such as coal, building materials, hay and pottery – so the railway company had to agree to pay a £10 per hour fine should the canal network become out of commission.
The Railway Company were taking a huge risk on the success of 3 Bridges which should have worried Brunel but perhaps the fact that he had come within an inch of losing his own life on a previous project and the inspiration and passion he took from his French engineer father was enough to keep him going through the inevitable challenges ahead.
Marc Brunel was a great engineer but financial pressures caused by a number of ill advised projects and his insistence on sending Isambard to boarding school and then to university in France, led to him spending three months in a debtor’s prison. However, the British government recognised Marc Brunel’s engineering potential and agreed to release him from his debts and jail. Brunel returned to England in 1822 and joined forces with his father professionally creating an underground passage which would run under the Thames riverbed between Wapping and Rotherhithe. This was the first tunnel in the world to run under a river and workers were placed in sometimes dangerous conditions being exposed to raw sewage, occasional flames from ignited methane gas and flooding. They were offered some protection from a tunnelling shield devised by Marc Brunel. However on one Saturday 12 January 1828 disaster struck. The tunnel flooded. Six men were swept to their deaths in a tidal wave of sewage, debris and water. The 22 year old Isambard Brunel should have joined them. But his assistant managed to pull Brunel’s unconscious body from the water.
It seems likely that if Brunel had not survived the Thames Tunnel incident, the 3 Bridges area of modern Middlesex might look completely different today. Brunel went on to create his most famous design the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge as well as 25 railway lines, 8 piers and docks 129 other bridges (of which 4 were suspension). He also built 3 ships – SS Great Britain (completed in 1843) – the first large iron steamship, the Great Eastern (built in 1858) – the largest ship ever built at that time and the SS Great Western (1838) – the largest passenger ship in the world for four years.
The Brentford Spur has been in recent use twice a day by freight trains delivering crushed stone to and removing rubbish from local depots in Brentford.
The Thames Tunnel that Isambard built with his father was incorporated into the London Underground system as the East London Line and is now part of the London Overground reducing journey times and congestion in the centre of the city.
Brunel’s iron bridge at Southall and Clifton Suspension Bridge are still going strong and handling increased volumes of modern traffic.
Planning Your Visit
If you’re happy to combine your visit with a bit of shopping, you can park in Great Western Industrial park for up for 4 hours. By public transport, the nearest station in Southall (mainline) or check local bus services via https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/buses/
You can combine your visit with a canal walk. Just cross over to the opposite site of the road (from the 3 Bridges sign) and you will see a foot path down to the tow path. You can turn right to explore Glade Lane Canal Side Park or left to view the series of locks in this area and the bricked up entrance to Hanwell Asylum where – in times past – boats would enter to deliver goods such as coal and take away produce – such as fruit and vegetables grown by the patients.
View of the Canal from the road bridge
GWR Southall Steam Train Passing Under Brunel’s Three Bridges
Lock Keeper’s Cottage