No, it isn't anything to do with Venice! It was the gondola suspended beneath the span of the Newport Transporter Bridge. And although I just about remember walking across the river Usk with Dad when I was very young - we climbed up the west tower, walked across, then climbed down the east tower - I'd never taken a car across the river this way before. Hence the 'first'. And here is my return ticket to prove it.
The Newport Transporter Bridge is one of just six like it still operating in the world, although twenty were built altogether. This link gives some official facts: http://www.newport.gov.uk/heritage/index.cfm/transporterBridge/. There is another such bridge up north, in Middlesborough. It's very, very similar to the Newport bridge, except that the Newport bridge looks quainter, less functional, more 'Victorian'. The differences will be greater now - the Middlesbrough bridge gondola has been modernised after a two-year upgrade. Here it is as it used to be, back in 2010, when I took Fiona (then quite new) onto it, went across, parked on the other side, and ran back to grab some more shots:
As you can see, the Middlesbrough gondola can carry several large cars and many foot passengers in weather-beating accommodation. It hangs over the water, suspended from steel cables attached to a platform that travels on rails between the two towers at either end.
The Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge is well-used - it's a section of the A178, the old main road to Hartlepool. It's an important part of Middlesbrough's local road system. Not so the Newport Transporter Bridge, which has lost its original purpose, and is no longer an important link. Newport's dock area declined over many decades, and the transporter bridge ended up being more-or-less a 'bridge to nowhere' - or at least a bridge to very little. However, the gradual expansion in more recent years of housing and warehousing along the east and west Usk banks could give it a purpose again. Meanwhile it's a tourist attraction, and doesn't offer a regular service. It's closed in the winter, in any case.
For some years I'd been trying in vain to take Fiona across the river using this bridge. But it was always shut. Then last month, on a hunch, I drove that way and was delighted to find it open and ready to transport Fiona and myself across the muddy and swirling Usk.
I didn't hesitate. I joined the two other cars waiting in the west side queue.
As you can see, the Newport bridge is distinctly more twee and old-fashioned than the Middlesbrough bridge! The gondola is smaller and less substantial. And foot passengers are definitely going to catch colds.
They closed the gates, the 'driver' climbed up into his turret (where he presumably pulled a lever) and we were off.
The regulations stipulated that anybody who wasn't in a car had to stay within the 'passenger area', but I ignored that. Nobody cared. I felt extraordinarily pleased with this turn of events. I blasted away with the little Leica. It was a quiet, very smooth, and quite rapid crossing. Looking up, you could see the suspension wires slightly bowed.
All too soon, the east side got nearer. But I had a return ticket, so I was going to come straight back, and enjoy a double dose. There was a bump as we touched the east side, and then we drove off. Reversing, I returned. And then waited, in pole position, to go back to the west side of the river.
Well, the return crossing was just like the first, so I won't waste words on it. Driving off afterwards, I felt I'd finally done something I'd wanted to do for a very long time. Peg (my elderly aunt) and I had come here several times since 2009, but we had never caught the bridge in operation. She would be disappointed that we hadn't been able to share the experience. Unfortunately, Peg will never have another chance, at least not with me. Big cars with highish seats have become too awkward for her, and getting into Fiona is now beyond her capabilities.
One other challenge remains unsatisfied - walking across on the high span. Although I definitely did walk across with Dad when ten or so (in 1962, that would be), I do wonder at it, because I've never liked heights nor scary thrills, and I remember being pretty scared when climbing down. And yet in the heyday of the Transporter Bridge, dock workmen who wanted to save a few pennies would walk across twice daily, all year round. Clearly they had no fear. And Peg's son Richard told me that when he was in his early teens (say about 1970) he too had walked across, and had met some kids who were actually kicking a football around up there!
So, given these examples, would I do it now - climb one tower, walk along the top span to the other side, and then climb down again? As a personal dare, say? Or for the sake of some amazing shots of Newport? Well, I think the answer has to be yes. I really must push myself to do it. I mean, it can't actually kill me, can it?
Another project, then.