Date of Birth: 17 January 1930, Abersychan, Wales, UK
Birth Name: Ron Bridle
Ron Bridle, was the Department of Transport’s Chief Highway Engineer from the mid-1970s to 1980 and oversaw the rapid expansion of Britain’s motorway network.
At 6ft 4 in tall, weighing more than 20 stone and with a big grey beard, he looked like a cross between Orson Welles and James Robertson Justice, and cut a colourful figure in the upper ranks of the Civil Service. He was also a talented artist and painted portraits of several presidents of the Institute of Highways Engineers, including himself when he held the office in 1982.
Ron Bridle was born on January 17 1930 at Abersychan, near Pontypool, the son of a bookmaker who was often in trouble with the authorities in those days of tight legal controls. Ron attended West Monmouthshire Grammar School, where he excelled at rugby. He was capped for Wales Schoolboys against England and by the age of 19 had established himself in Newport’s first team.
He spent his National Service in the RAF but his two years were spent playing rugby for the RAF and painting murals and officers’ portraits. “I don’t think I ever got near a plane,” he later said.
He then went to Bristol University to study Civil Engineering. His rugby career continued and he was offered the huge sum (for the time) of £5,000 to play rugby league for St Helens. To his father’s frustration, he turned the offer down and instead chose to head for Ghana to work on the construction of the Accra to Tefle road.
On the birth of his first daughter in 1958 Bridle returned home and found a job with Cwmbran Development Corporation. But the limitations of local government spurred him to seek a more exciting position, which he found as project engineer on the construction of the M1 between Sheffield and Leeds, where he made his mark by using computers to speed up the programme . He was appointed project manager (bridges) for all contracts and produced a computerised method of monitoring concrete quality to avoid failures.
After a brief spell as deputy county surveyor of Cheshire, in 1967 he was appointed director of the newly created Midlands Road Construction Unit, responsible, among other things, for “Spaghetti Junction”.
When in 1970 a bridge under construction at Milford Haven collapsed, Bridle was assigned as technical adviser to a government inquiry into box girder bridges. His investigations revealed that loading on another box girder bridge, the Severn Bridge, was not random as HGVs tended to cross in convoy, imposing nearly three times the design loading. A major re-strengthening programme on the bridge was begun.
In 1974 he was promoted to Chief Highway Engineer and, six years later, he was appointed director of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory at Crowthorne, Berkshire.
After three years at the TRRL he took a post as director of technical development for Key Resource Industries, a subsidiary of Mitchell Cotts. Among other projects he helped to restore tea plantations in Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin.
He eventually left the company, taking with him a patent for a technique for reinforcing earth embankments called soil nailing. Returning to Wales, he worked with Cardiff University on the technique giving the patent to the university when he was appointed honorary professor in the 1990s. He served as president of the Institution of Highways and Transportation (1981-82) and won its award for professional distinction in 1993.
In his later years he was a driving force behind the Motorway Archive, a collection of documents outlining Britain’s motorway achievement.