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The words I.K. BRUNEL, ENGINEER, 1859 appear in large metal letters on either end of The Royal Albert Bridge, added as a memorial after his death on 5 September 1859. In 1921, new access platforms were added that obscured the lettering but in 2006 Network Rail relocated the platforms, allowing the name to be clearly seen again. The walkways had previously been temporarily removed in 1959 and the bridge floodlit during its centenary year.
401 new cross-girders were fitted in 1905 to allow heavier locomotives to pass over. In 1908 the two spans nearest Saltash railway station were replaced with wider ones to accommodate a new track layout. The remaining approach spans were replaced on both sides of the river during 1928 and 1929. During the 1930s new cross-bracing and diagonal sway-bracing were added between the vertical standards to further strengthen the bridge and keep the suspension chains hanging in the correct shape.
It is still possible to travel over the bridge by using a train on the Cornish Main Line, and pass below it on the River Tamar. Cruise boats operate between Phoenix Wharf, Plymouth, Saltash, and Calstock. There are also several view points around the bridge.
Saltash railway station - The Cornish approach spans start right at the platform end. These were replaced in 1908 so that the single line on the bridge could split into two lines before reaching the station. Saltash Quay - The foreshore at Saltash runs right up to the pier that supports the Cornish end of the main span. An inscribed stone commemorating the bridge can be found beneath the bridge on the hillside alongside Fore Street. Tamar Bridge - The road bridge lies parallel to and slightly higher than the railway bridge on its north side. A toll-free foot and cycle path is situated on the south side of the road bridge from which it is possible to examine the bridge in detail. An area of grass beside the motor vehicle toll booths affords a view of the Devon end of the railway bridge. St Budeaux Passage - The Devon piers can be reached from the waterfront at St Budeaux. The yard where the spans were constructed was situated alongside the bridge at the foot of the road down the hill.
The construction of such a large and distinctive bridge soon caught the attention of the general public. The launching of the Cornish span in 1857 attracted a crowd of around 20,000, and many people also came to witness the launch of the Devon span and the opening day. During its construction it was photographed many times and after its opening it was the subject for many paintings, including those by local artist Alfred Wallis. It has also been the subject of many photographs and postcards.
It was already a feature guidebooks in the year of its opening: It is a labour of Hercules, but Mr Brunel has accomplished the feat proclaimed one, and went on to report in detail the design and construction of the bridge that for novelty and ingenuity of construction stands unrivalled in the world. More than 100 years later it continues to appear in many travel guides and features. John Betjeman summed up its impact on the traveller:
The general grey slate and back gardens of Plymouth, as seen from the Great Western made the surprise of Saltash Bridge all the more exciting. Up and down stream, grey battleships were moored in the Tamar and its reaches. Hundreds of feet below, the pathetic steam ferry to Saltash from the Devon bank tried to compete with Brunel's mighty bridge.
The bridge has become a symbol of the transition from Devon to Cornwall. In the Great Western Railway's The Cornish Riviera travel guide, SPB Mais regarded it as an almost magic means of transporting travellers from a county, which, if richer than others, is yet unmistakingly an English county, to a Duchy which is in every respect un-English. You shut your eyes going over the Saltash Bridge only to open them again on a foreign scene. However, Cornish people look at it in the other way; in the song "Cousin Jack", English folk duo Show of Hands sing I dream of a bridge on the Tamar, It opens us up to the East.
The bridge is also the backdrop of ITV1's The West Country Tonight during the old westcountry region.