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Severn Crossing really is a bridge of sighs
publication date: Dec 17, 2015
author/source: Dave Moss
Until 1966, the only direct connection between the west of England and south Wales was the Aust ferry - which didn't begin carrying cars until 1934.
Anything bigger was obliged to take an alternative road route, the shortest of which was a tortuous 59-mile trip via Gloucester, without the help of the M5.
The ferry route was only about a mile but difficulties included a vast tidal reach - and some of Britain's most hazardous estuary waters with a rise and fall of over 40ft or 14m twice daily. Plenty chanced it - around 300,000 cars used the service in its last operational year.
At a cost of £8m, south Wales finally got a continuous road link to England when the Queen opened the spectacular new Severn Bridge on 8 September 1966. The toll for cars when it opened was the equivalent of 12.5p and has been steadily increased ever since and in January 2016 it will rise to £6.60.
With it came another new innovation for the region - the first motorway service area. Imaginatively named Aust Services, after the nearby village known for its fossils and Jurassic and Triassic period cliff geology, its site was carefully chosen, commanding expansive views of the Severn estuary and surrounding landscapes.
This was one of nine service areas built by Top Rank, and a ground-breaker in several ways. Its early sites often employed bold, futuristic architecture, though Aust's main building was a cunningly camouflaged and not unattractive box-like design.
It was designed to cope with high traffic levels, including an anticipated peak summer holiday rush to Wales, with vast car parks and what, until well into the 1970's, was the largest restaurant on the motorway network, with almost 1,000 seats, and the most stunning view.
The Department of Transport had to innovate to deliver the site and views within budget, turning Aust into the first "off-motorway" service area, accessed from either direction using junction 21. It was also the first service area with non-motorway access, via the B4061 from Thornbury and A403 from Avonmouth.
Local truckers thus enjoyed the culinary bonus of motorway-quality sausage, chips, egg and beans, consumed - in then-typical style - in a separate lorry park cafeteria.
A fine day's visit to Aust services might have included a picnic outside, as shown in this postcard, before strolling along the public footpath to the nearby highest point to enjoy the view. Continuing, this path crosses over the Toll Booths (yes, really) before descending to motorway level - the only spot in Britain where its legally possible to walk alongside a live motorway.
Today the old viewpoint and picnic area are private property with office complexes, but the path remains open; Chepstow town is a mile's walk - and pedestrians and cyclists pay no bridge tolls.
Aust's heyday really began in the mid 1970's, when the M5 north/south link opened just four miles east. Between 1980 and 1990, traffic flows here increased by 63% - bringing severe peak time congestion on the two-lane bridge and nearby motorway. A Second Severn crossing was announced by government in 1986, and the full scheme was published four years later with HRH Prince of Wales opening it 5 June 1996.
In 1991 Rank and the Mecca music-to-bingo operations merged. Rank decided to offload its motorway service areas, and Mecca's former Chief executive took them on, branding the chain 'Pavilion.'
Three years later, Granada snapped them up, and with the Second Severn Crossing opening in 1996, closure seemed inevitable as traffic reduced sharply along the now newly renumbered M48. Granada decided to sell most of its site for alternative use, closed the main services, and downsized the car parks - but revamped the old Trucker's Café, to provide catering for all.
By 2001 Granada had tired of motorway service areas: new owners Compass Group rebranded them all "Moto." Aust Services underwent a bizarrely inappropriate name change to Severn View - something it now doesn't have ... The original main building remains, a testament to the past, little changed externally - but today headquarters of insurance specialists the Brightside Group.
Severn View services achieved notoriety on 17 February 1995, when the Vauxhall Cavalier of one Richey James was found abandoned in the car park. He was songwriter and musician with Welsh indie rock band the Manic Street Preachers, today best known for the 1992 hit song 'Theme from MASH (Suicide is painless)'.
Reportedly a complex and emotionally unstable character, James had checked out of a London hotel on 1 February. Quite what happened after this is unknown, though its believed he visited Cardiff before his car was found at Severn View.
Several unconfirmed sightings occurred afterwards, but he was never seen again; its widely believed he probably jumped to his death from the Severn Bridge.
There's another musical link to the now long-derelict Aust Cliff ferry terminal, just below the bridge. Here, on 11 May 1966, during a controversial British tour, lensman Barry Feinstein photographed the legendary Bob Dylan on the ferry terminal pier, with the Severn Bridge nearing completion in the background.
Almost 40 years later that shot became central to promotion of the Martin Scorsese TV film "No direction home," detailing Dylan's tempestuous musical evolution between 1961 and 1965.
The film soundtrack album cover carried the same shot, and just one other Dylan picture at the site has surfaced. Could more be hidden away?
If Dylan was waiting to cross to Beachley, he might have boarded the Severn Princess, a 19-car ferry, and the newest of three in service on 7 September 1966, when the final ferry sailed.
It later saw service in Shannon and spent much time hauling shellfish, before abandonment in disrepair in Connemara. In the 1990's a group of enthusiasts discovered the derelict vessel and returned it to Chepstow, where it currently rests below the old Brunel tubular railway bridge.
With donations, volunteer assistance and generous sponsorship from local company Mabey Bridge, builders of the decking for the first Severn bridge, the Severn Princess Restoration Group is working towards a full cosmetic refit.
Restoration is proceeding, in the hope the historic ferry will one day be part of a significant maritime heritage trail. All in all, a ferry-tale ending..!
David has unearthed more fascinating facts about the Severn crossing and these will appear very soon, so bookmark thewesterngroup site to ensure you don’t miss the unfolding story.
Most of what you might need to know about the history of Aust and Severn View services is here:
But there's also this, which includes pictures of the site in its early days:
The Official history of the building of the first Severn Bridge is here (with pictures)
More complete bridge specification details, span, tons of concrete, design loadings, sag spans of cables, etc etc. (phew!) ...
Some strengthening of the first Severn Bridge was required following traffic increases and the introduction of heavier vehicles. Details of the work are here
Though you would probably not realise it on driving across, the original Severn bridge is actually made up of two bridges: the second crosses the River Wye. Details here:
A history of the building of the Second Severn bridge (Design froin 1986, site work 1992-1996) with key technical details is here:
Some facts about the second Severn Crossing Toll Plazas is here:
Severn Bridge photographic archives
There are two collections, one for each bridge:
A gallery for the construction of the original bridge is here (including some nostalgic shots of the original ferry)
A gallery for the second Severn crossing construction is here
Severn crossings official website:
Severn Crossing Wikipedia entry
Manic Street Preachers' songwriter Richey James's obituary is here
Richey James fan site - a full timeline of the man himself:
Details of the Dylan TV film are here:
The Dylan promotional poster featuring Aust jetty and ferry terminal is here:
Barry Feinstein, acclaimed photographer, and friend of Bob Dylan, died in 2011. An obituary is here:
The only other Bob Dylan picture to surface (so far) from the Aust jetty is here:
Aust ferry Wikipedia entry:
A detailed appraisal of the history of Aust village, including the history of its ferry service, is here
Some details of Aust's famous Fossils and interesting geology can be found here
If you're in the area and prefer something other than service area food in cramped conditions (and with no view) the pub at Aust is here...
A series of pictures showing the derelict remnants of the old ferry terminals on both sides of the Severn estuary are here
There are some pictures of the Severn Princess on its return from years spent derelict in Ireland at this site. The ferry was beached on the Severn Estuary prior to being moved to its current resting place at Chepstow:
The Severn Princess restoration group website:
An article appeared in "Vintage Roadscene" magazine, September 2012 edition, by John Greeves, entitled. "Return of the Princess." Published by Key Publishing. ISSN 0266-8947. Note: the magazine is now published by Kelsey Publishing.