Stats define us: dress size, batting average, salary. And when suspension bridges get together for a night out, they judge themselves against their peers by socially competing about the length of their main spans. When the mighty Humber Bridge opened in 1981, it was the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, with towers 1410m apart. The unglamorous terminus town of Hull had a No. 1, a world-beater.
Today it’s way down main-span league table, overtaken by ever more ambitious imitators. But if you turn up on your bike hoping to ride the Akashi-Kaikyo in Japan, or the Great Belt in Denmark, or any of China’s vast crossings, you’ll be turned away. No cycle lanes or footways there. They hate you. Find a bus or train, they’ll say in Japanese or Danish or Mandarin. Or buy a car. Or just go away.
So hooray for the Humber Bridge! The estuary may be the sort of brown usually found on stray dogs; the most vertical points on the surrounding scenery may be the distant hazy smokestacks of Grimsby and Immingham; and it may only join a city of 300,000 people on one side with some fields on the other. But it welcomes cyclists and walkers, as any proper bridge should.
And cycling is, in fact, the ideal way to enjoy the world’s best single-span suspension bridge. In a car you can’t stop to admire the engineering; on foot it’s just too damn far across. But bike pace, as usual, is just right. You feel the awesome scale and precarious windswept isolation in the middle, but you’re only a few minutes from coffee and cake.
The north side – with Hull on it – has a large car park and viewing area right next to the tower. There’s also a friendly information centre, and cafe open every day. Signs direct you up to the shared pedestrian-cycle footpath on the west side; there’s a similar one on the east side but it always seems closed these days. The path is wide and smooth, and dramatically overlooked by the rocket-launcher towers and massively graceful cables.
It’s not as long as it looks down to those ships below you (only 30m), but the mildly choppy waters are deceptively benign. This is said to be the most dangerous shipping navigation after the Orinoco – not because of pirates, piranhas or crocs, but the eternally shifting sandbars which demand expert local knowledge.
The north tower is solidly on land; the south tower is out in the estuary, whose mud-pie geology put the building years behind schedule in the 1970s as every concrete support they put in place kept disappearing.
The best place to photograph the bridge as a structure is from the south bank, thanks to the artistic curve on the approach road. You can find refreshment in the small town of Barton (which has a rail station), but there’s not that much reason to stay. Head back across for another dose of disbelief at how something so slender – and, yes, beautiful, in a mathematical sort of way – can be so big.
So come here, and be impressed at what people can build when we’re not fretting about our dress size or batting average. And by the fact that you can ride it: the world’s longest cyclable bridge.