Making a connection with nature


In 1949 J. B. Priestley had a book of his essays printed called, simply, "Delight." I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop recently. It has a suitable name. It is perhaps an ideal bedtime book (though he prefers detective stories) , because it consists of a large number of short sections, perfect for someone who, like me, at the mere sight of a pillow can only stave off sleep for a few paragraphs. Eash section records and celebrates a feeling or an experience, or something, that measures up to his idea of a "delight." He ranges from fountains to the Marx brothers, from orchestras tuning up to the smell of bacon-and-eggs when you wake up, from bragging to "suddenly doing nothing." This unpretentious little volume is a delight in itself. It is filled with instances of quick thankfulness.

Of course one of the chief pleasures it gives is in finding which of the delights you, as reader, share with him, and then in speculating which you personally would add (though it is unlikely to be with his felicitousness).

One of my additions would definitely be bridges.m

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It is not so much crossing bridges that excites my imagination, though that, and standing on them gazing down over the parapet at a perspective of railtrack or the sweep of a river, make good pastimes. But your are, in fact, almost unaware that a bridge is under you when you are going over it. It is bridges as an art form, as giant sculptures, that give me delight. To see them this way, you have to go under them. The modern highways that have now belatedly crisscrossed much of the more populated parts of Britain have provided a considerable amount of new material for connoisseurs of "bridge-art," though I must admit that in spite of all the resources of modern engineering it is distressing how frequently these motorways are spanned by clumsy, inelegant bridges.

Occasionally, though, you drive under a bridge that leaps and flies like a swallow over your head, the supports of which are less bulky than you would think possible, and angle into the span itself with a magical ease and weightlessness. Such a bridge (and it is even better if it crosses a space between two tanks or cliffs of different height) is no less functional, I am sure, than the awkward and heavy bridges are, but it evinces something extra, something more than the dull practically of just moving more.

One of the most delightfull things about bridges is that they illustrate perfectly the vast variety of ways in which a basically unchanging problem can be solved. From the three-foot slab of sandstone across a rushing beck in the Yorkshire Pennines all the way to the Golden Gate, the principle is the same: how to get over without wetting your feet.

The best bridges do most with least, and I believe that visually they work to the greatest advantage when their design includes a consciousness -- as great sculpture does --pidly or follow a flight path like a longing. It is essentially a jump made visible and fixed: we jump over a space -- an action, a verb. A bridge is an object that imitates an action, a thing turned into a movement. Modern engineering has made possible magnificent, soaring, etheral bridge-forms. They are surely one of the most splendid feats of the 20th century.

But the beauty of older bridges is by no means limited by the lack of concrete and steel. On the edge of the Cumbrian town of Kirkby Lonsdale, for example, is a medieval stone bridge, known as the devil's bridge due to some inappropriate folk myth.

This comfortable and ancient arch, which seems to have become as natural to its setting as the rocks and banks and river, inspires affection in crowds of sightseers. They mightm be attracted there because the children can paddle or fish for tiddlers, or because of the ice-cream van, or simply (a mystery that always baffles me) because people who leave the crowded city for the day feel such a strong impulse to stay crowded, even out in the country. But I think it is simply the bridge that attracts them, this old and friendly stone shape.

Not too far from the devil's bridge are a number of Victorian viaducts, built to carry the Settle-to-Carlisle railway over wild terrain. At one point, climbing up by road to a particularly high station, you can look back and see three of these superb viaducts distancing away from you through the hills. They are typical of their time: monumental and massive, disclosing more than a secret admiration for the Romans with their steady processions of arches. They are not lightweight: they do more with more. But they qualify as triumphs of bridge-art in my book because for all their solemn grandeur and importance they have that indefinable quality we call "proportion." They do not conflict with their environment. They are a balanced and persuasively inevitable part of it. Take them away and scene would suffer an emphatic loss. . . .

I think -- and it's the main reason for the delight bridges give -- that good ones represent humanity working in special cooperation with nature. They do not destroy or disregard their context. They are not so much an arrogant, manmade confrontation as a contribution.m

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