The following piece was written by Peter Waples, one of our punt chauffeurs, in appreciation of one of the most interesting bridges on the College Backs. Peter hails from Australia originally and has a background teaching English in schools.
There’s no shortage of lovely bridges on the Backs – the unmistakeable silhouette of the Mathematical Bridge, the elegant simplicity of Kings, the fanciful intricacy of the Bridge of Sighs – but the one that eclipses them all is Magdalene Bridge. It has a strength and powerful grace that renders the rest mere fripperies. And although, strictly speaking, Magdalene Bridge is not modern – the original was built in 1823 – in its time it will have been very much so, and therefore represents the onset of a new age of rapid progress based on science and engineering in which we’re still in the midst.
To start with, Magdalene Bridge actually does something useful. It’s not just there to look pretty, to be an accessory to a dons’ playground. It’s one of the two major crossing points on the Cam, and bears a constant load of traffic and pedestrians. It has that combination of robust functionality and a new kind of aesthetic that’s so characteristic of the architecture of the industrial revolution in Britain. It exudes a kind of firm-based confidence, a reassurance that it can cope with any stress to which it’s subjected; a metaphor for the Victorian age which followed its construction, and indeed of which it’s a harbinger.
It’s a contrast in every way to the bridges that precede it. Its black-painted, gold-trimmed image strikes you almost starkly as you approach it from St John’s, an immediate statement that says it’s not there to be pretty, but to do something. Those other bridges, classically constructed in warm stone as they are, seem mere toys by comparison. Magdalene has to endure the weight of hundreds of vehicles every day, and it does it with ease, like some wise and amiable pack-animal, ever reliable and unwaveringly resilient. It’s made of iron, the emblematic material of the industrial revolution; unpretentious, functional, modern, useful and enduring. And yet it’s beautiful too; there’s a simple, utilitarian elegance about it that’s implicitly pleasing to the eye.
And from a punter’s point of view, it’s the friendliest bridge of all of them; Mr Browne has provided those handy ridges on the underside, set at useful intervals that enable you to propel your punt under the bridge if wind and current are against you. None of the bland smoothness of Silver Street Bridge or the miserly cracks in some of the other bridges that grudgingly allow you a finger hold.
The bridge is also a signal that you’re about to exit the English idyll that’s the college backs; an almost fantasy world in which a few people are privileged enough to live. Magdalene Bridge re-introduces you to the real world, of shops and traffic and restaurants and all the prosaic busyness of life that’s essential to its maintenance. You’re back in the noise and bustle of a busy town, and indeed as you pass under the bridge and emerge by quayside, you’re also reminded that long before it was a university town Cambridge had been an important river port; the dual and often conflicting identities of the city – town and gown – are embodied in Magdalene Bridge itself. The university could not exist without the town, but the town could function quite adequately without the university, as indeed it did for centuries before the first students arrived here in 1209, just as the bridge too has an existence that’s quite independent of the university.
So Magdalene Bridge is as modern as it is ancient; the oldest crossing point on the river yet assertively of the new age; as utilitarian and useful as the college bridges are decorative and dilettante; almost two hundred years old in design yet capable of dealing with stresses its architect could only remotely have imagined. Objects that are beautiful are objects that work; Magdalene Bridge works beautifully.