Michael Portillo visits two bridges spanning Anglesey’s past

An Anglesey museum which chronicles the history of two of the world’s most famous bridges hosted TV celebrity Michael Portillo this week.

The former politician and star of Great British Railway Journeys dropped in  at the Menai Heritage centre which celebrates the Menai Suspension and Britannia bridges.

Based at the Telford Centre the museum reveals the fascinating stories of the two bridges spanning the Menai Strait.

Trustee John Cole shows Michael Portillo around.

Trustee John Cole shows Michael Portillo around.

According to museum volunteer and trustee John Cole: “Michael visited the museum  to learn about the history and the construction of the bridges.

“He later joined engineers to inspect the latest  work being undertaken on the Menai Suspension Bridge,” he said.

“He went up in a cherry picker to the top of the Anglesey tower on the bridge.

“As part of safety upgrade work  sections have been repainted and the majority of the bridge’s ‘hanging rods’ are being replaced.

“We were able to explain to him about the hanging rods and showed him pictures from when the bridge was built and how it originally looked.

“He was very interested in the  museum, and to learn about the bridges and their history.

“It’s interesting for us now, with the latest repairs, we are able to work in conjunction with that, helping keep the story of the Menai Bridge bang up to date,” he added.

Jean Baker founder of the Menai Heritage Centre with what is believed to be Thomas Telfords writing desk (Picture Dale Spridgeon)

Jean Baker founder of the Menai Heritage Centre with what is believed to be Thomas Telford’s writing desk (Picture Dale Spridgeon)

The Welsh Government recently announced that the UK Highways was carrying out improvements on the 200 year old structure.

Cadw, the historic environment service of the Welsh government, is also monitoring the work on the listed structure.

Michael Portillo being filmed on Menai Suspension Bridge (Picture: John Cole)

Michael Portillo being filmed on Menai Suspension Bridge (Picture: John Cole)

The Menai Suspension Bridge was built by Thomas Telford, and was started in 2019. When it opened in 1826, it had the longest span in the world at 176m.

The Britannia Bridge, built by Robert Stephenson, was started in 1846 and- was completed four years later in March, 1850.

The museum houses interesting artefacts, as oil paintings, drawings,  photographs, donated items, tools, iron work and bridge building equipment.

The Menai Suspension Bridge as it looked when it was first built. (Picture Courtesy Of The Menai Heritage Centre)

The Menai Suspension Bridge as it looked when it was first built. (Picture Courtesy Of The Menai Heritage Centre)

It also offers activities for children, including model bridge building projects and walks and talks.

As the 200th year anniversary of the completion of the Menai Suspension Bridge looms in 2026, the centre says it is hoping to gear up its activities.

It is calling for more people to drop by, especially youngsters over the summer holidays.

Lions on guard by the railway line over the Britannia Bridge Picture: Courtesy of Menai Heritage Centre

Lions on guard by the railway line over the Britannia Bridge Picture: Courtesy of Menai Heritage Centre

Older members of the community are also welcome, and the museum is  “desperately appealing” for more volunteers to help run it.

Mervyn Jones says he thoroughly enjoys being a part of the museum team, and is in his second season as a volunteer.

The retired schools (Estyn) inspector and a chief education officer for Wrexham City Borough Council said “I  thoroughly enjoy giving my time to the project.

“I find it rewarding and interesting to be involved with a community project like this one. I’d recommend it to others to give it a go.”

The  centre is always on the look out for donations or loans of any items relating to the building of the bridges,  including people’s stories and anecdotes, of  family connections to the bridges.

The heritage centre’s founder is 83-year-old Jean Baker, who started the heritage project some 25 years ago.

“We started a group to help bring tourism to the area,” said Jean, who formerly  ran nurse training schools, and was also a Welsh National Opera singer.

“It was our mission to help people understand the importance of the two bridges and keep the stories alive.

“The bridges not only helped shape the history of the area but also had a national impact with things like transport, trade and politics.

“They opened up access to Parliament, when the Act of Union came in, in 1801, Irish politicians needed to get to Westminster.

“The bridges speeded things up by providing a more direct route to London to Holyhead.”

“The bridges themselves were massive, they were globally important too, and the men who worked on them were incredible engineers.”

Volunteers at the Menai Heritage Centre try out one of the bridge building activities designed for young visitors.

Volunteers at the Menai Heritage Centre try out one of the bridge building activities designed for young visitors.

In the museum, is a travelling box believed to have been used by Thomas Telford, donated by a local family.

She added “We’ve been very lucky to receive some fabulous items to display, including the travelling box.

“They help bring the stories alive.

“We are always keen to hear from anyone who may have things thet like to donate. There must be lots of things relating to the bridges still in attics and sheds in the area.

“We’d love more people to come and see the museum and we are desperate for more volunteers to come and join us.”

Menai Heritage is an independent charity that relies on the support of  sponsors and grant providing bodies

North Wales Chronicle | Anglesey