One of the joys of being a Head Master is that you get to meet so many interesting and talented people. Last week, as so often happens, we had visitors from overseas at the school, this time a small delegation from China, interested in the way that UK independent education works and keen to find out more about our own school. These were highly intelligent and charming people, and we spent a happy hour together. At the end of their visit, they presented me with a scroll; I unrolled the scroll and there was a long, thin tapestry, beautifully drawn, of a bridge seemingly spanning a river between one side of a town and another. It was, they told me, of Henan Province, their own home (and indeed home to 100 million people) and they wished to present it to me for its symbolic value – the symbolism, they said, being embodied by the bridge itself – they were proud, they told me, to make a link between their country and ours, between their home and our home, and this bridge symbolised that link.

When I lived in Sydney, I lived within view of one of the most iconic bridges in the world, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Admittedly you had to stand on the roof, but a fine view it was! Last summer, I climbed it for the first and (I can quite honestly say) final time. It is quite a climb. The bridge is 160ft above the water, and the top of it is 440ft above the bottom, and the experience is enhanced (if that is the right word for somebody who is not that keen on heights) by the theatre of it all – elaborate safety suits, long pre-walk instruction, regular stopping points and reminders about vertigo.  The history of it, however, is quite fascinating. It took eight years to build from its inception in 1924 to its completion in 1932. The scale of this achievement was enormous. At any given stage, there were 1400 people employed on the bridge during that time, itself a great boon to the city in those years of recovery between the wars. Amazingly, perhaps, only 16 people lost their lives in its building, though even more amazingly only two men lost their lives to falling off the bridge. Whilst I was tied on at all times, that was not the case for the workers, who often had to pass rivets to each other by throwing them to a man clinging to the girders below, 600ft above the water. There are six million rivets holding that bridge together, some as small as 32mm long and 17mm in diameter; and it is, I can tell you, windy up there, and the bridge shakes, even now.

A bridge had been mooted over Sydney Harbour since the early 19th century. It is a huge harbour and it was clear from an early age that the settlements on both sides were suitably grand to warrant a link. To go round from one side to the other by land was a long way, and, in fact even by today’s transport methods, still is. The idea took about 100 years to come to fruition, but when it did I suspect that there were two main motivations. The most obvious was to join the north of Sydney to the south, where the city lay, largely so that the north could access the city easily. Secondly, the building of the bridge was a statement to the world; it is, quite simply, an extraordinary human achievement. The scale is vast, the engineering challenge phenomenal, the cost considerable and even the idea itself would have been considered by some preposterous. How amazing it must have been then when after eight years, during which the bridge was built out from the north and south shores simultaneously, they managed to join the arch up perfectly in the middle. What a triumph for the chief engineer, John Bradfield.

Since the moment it was built until now, this has remained one of the most well-known bridges in the world, and it is tempting to look back at the symbolism of this bridge. Is it too far-fetched to think that this was a local contribution to the healing of the world after the Great War? Bridges join people together; and in the same way that the bridge itself was built out from both shores simultaneously, they require the people to play their part by setting off from both sides, too. They allow for free movement and exchange of ideas; and they offer the chance to mend differences. Even nowadays, there is a Sydney expression which gives wonderfully blunt advice for when you fall out with someone, or disagree with a decision – they simply say, “Build a bridge and get over it”! This particular bridge has become the emblem of a world city, a city not only keen to show off a great feat of engineering, but also keen to connect. 

Which brings me back to my Chinese visitors last week. What a lovely gift that was – a picture of a bridge, that invites its recipient to set out from one end, whilst they have set out from the other. With a simple, thoughtful gesture; and in a lovely gentle way, they have in fact taught me a kind and valuable lesson.

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