My picture shows the River Weaver Navigation at Hartford, Cheshire, where the Navigation is perhaps at its most bucolic. I have caught it, moreover, in its autumnal colours. But in the background is Hartford Bridge, built by Cheshire County Council in 1939, whose utilitarian design and bright blue paint might seem incongruous. It might seem to spoil the view. But I suggest that that view would not be special without it. What makes the scene is the balance of the natural and the artificial. Up close the bridge has the brute beauty of pure engineering: it is the girders and the concrete that impress themselves on us. In the distant view the severity of the bridge is softened by the water and foliage; but at the same time the water and foliage are counterpointed by the bridge.
Human activity inevitably imposes artifice on a landscape. We tend to exalt the countryside – there, we say, is ‘nature’ – but houses and street furniture are not fundamentally different in villages from in towns and cities. And though, as I said above, this is probably the Weaver at its most bucolic, this section, the Vale Royal Cut, is in fact one of several artificial sections, variously straightened, provided with locks or bypassing the river proper altogether. The Navigation was created to meet the requirements of industry; and the work on it began relatively early in the eighteenth century, some time before the canal age and the apotheosis of industry.
Hartford Bridge symbolises what a river navigation is – an essentially industrial thing – and it asserts that character even in such a sylvan setting as this. It is the tension between these two opposites which makes the scene uniquely delightful.