The Unique London Spot Where A Railway, A Road And A Canal All Cross Each Other

The Unique London Spot Where A Railway, A Road And A Canal All Cross Each Other
Photo taken from the towpath on the side of the canal, with a metal road bridge crossing over the top of the canal.
The road runs over the canal. The railway lies beneath.

Ask anyone to name a London engineering landmark by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and they'd probably come up with the Thames Tunnel that he constructed with his father in Rotherhithe. But 15 miles west lies another transport novelty: a spot where a railway, a road and a canal all cross each other.

Three Bridges on Windmill Lane in Hanwell actually only consists of two bridges: a road bridge and an aqueduct  conveying the Grand Junction Canal. The railway part of the trio sits more than 30ft below road level, on solid ground — constructed that way in the 1850s to avoid obscuring views of Osterley Park to the south (something the M4 now does instead).

Which came first?

Looking down on a canal (left) and railway (right).
Looking down on the canal and the railway from Windmill Lane road bridge.

How does such a transport trifecta come about? The road — the top tier — was here first. Windmill Lane was named after a windmill which stood nearby, and was later depicted by artist JMW Turner once the waterway had been added. The canal came next, built in 1794 as part of the Grand Junction Canal, running from Northamptonshire to the Thames at Brentford and constructed over a 12-year period. When it was built, it was the main method of transporting goods — and people — along the route.

Then came the railways. The Great Western and Brentford Railway was a branch line built to run from the main Great Western line at Southall, to Brentford Dock, a distance of about four miles. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was put in charge of constructing the line — and the dock — in the mid-1850s, and was faced with a large obstacle: the new railway couldn't be built through the sprawling grounds of nearby Osterley Park.

A photo taken from a canal towpath, showing the road bridge running overhead, and the railway emerging from beneath the canal.
The railway can just about be seen to the right of the canal.

Instead, Brunel designed the railway to skirt around Osterley, and he calculated that it was cheaper to put the railway underneath the canal, than to reroute the canal.

Work on the railway — and the new Three Bridges — began in 1856 and was completed in 1859, just a couple of months before Brunel's death in September that year. It was the last major engineering project he completed. Though it was initially intended as a freight line, due to demand a passenger service ran along the line between 1860 and 1942.

Hanwell's Three Bridges today

Photo taken from the road bridge over the canal - the canal is directly below, and the railway emerges beneath it, to the right.
Looking down onto the canal and the railway from Windmill Lane road bridge.

In the 21st century, the road is by far the busiest of the three transport methods. Long gone are the days when canals were a main method of transportation between cities — now, it's predominantly pleasure cruisers and houseboat residents bobbing about on these waters.

The railway too is no longer in major use, conveying just the occasional goods train. By the 1970s, the docks were winding down and many factories in Brentford had closed, reducing the need for goods trains. It has been suggested that the stretch could reopen to passenger services, though whether it'll ever happen remains to be seen.

Three Bridges is now listed as a Scheduled Monument by Historic England.

A tarmac path intersperesed with wooden railway sleepers, leading to an open area with wooden 3d letters saying 'Three Bridges'. There's a blue canal boat in the background, and the road bridge can just be seem through trees to the right.
Three Bridges Park. The road bridge can be seen through the trees to the right.

Alongside Three Bridges, by the Windmill Lane/Tentelow Lane roundabout is Three Bridges Park. You'll know when you've found it: the 3D wooden letters standing to attention reading 'Three Bridges' are a dead giveaway. To reach them, you'll follow a path embedded with railway sleepers, at the end of which you'll find an information board detailing the structure's history.

Three Bridges can be found at this spot on Windmill Lane.

All photos by Londonist.

Last Updated 08 September 2023

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