Thirty years of Queen Elizabeth II Bridge: The making of the Dartford Crossing's epic span

Watch: On the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge's 30th birthday, ITV News Meridian's Kit Bradshaw met some of the traffic officers and engineers who keep it all working

It was likened by some to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge when it opened three decades ago.Rising up over the water, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge was once the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe - and the first to be built across the Thames downstream of central London since 1894.Thirty years ago on Saturday, on an overcast October 30, 1991, the Queen drove the brand new 2,872-metre stretch of the Thames' newest bridge to officially open the span that bears her name.

The monarch took the inaugural journey from Essex to Kent, with the general public following not far behind.

The QEII bridge spans the Thames Estuary between Kent and Essex. Credit: National Highways

The bridge added four lanes of carriageway to the two tunnels, which had become a major traffic bottleneck.

It meant four much-needed additional lanes of cars could use the crucial Dartford Crossing between Essex and Kent.

Around 75,000 vehicles now drive across the QEII every day.

One of the civil engineers who worked on the scheme still recalls some of the challenges.

Her Majesty drives across QEII Bridge to open it in 1991, closely followed by the public. Credit: ITV News

Jeffrey Fisher, former senior engineer at Mott MacDonald told ITV News Meridian:

"Wherever the steel was made it had to be brought here in fabricated sections. You've got to think about fatigue, you've got to think about capacity.

"The other thing I always remember is coming down this ramp to the toll plaza, as they were.

"The toll plazas had to be strengthened so that they couldn't be taken out by a lorry, because if the brakes failed how do you stop them?"

In the decades since the bridge opened, nearly 1.5 billion vehicles have made the crossings over the Dartford span and twin tunnels under the waterway to travel between counties.

Thousands of M25 motorists take the bridge to cross over the Thames estuary between Thurrock, Essex and Dartford, Kent.

Thousands of drivers use the QEII Bridge to make the Dartford Crossing every day.

The bridge was finally completed in 1991, six decades after works on one of the UK's most important crossings began.

World War II interrupted the development on the first stage of the project- developing the two tunnels.

The project's workers had to content with changing water levels and the river traffic of a busy tidal waterway as they dug the tunnels, which opened one at a time, in 1960 and 1983 respectively.

Hard work goes into keeping traffic flowing on the QEII Bridge between Kent and Essex. Credit: ITV News Meridian

The bridge was the final stage of the project, and took three years - and £120 million - to complete.

The toll never was totally scrapped, as had been promised, once the bridge's multimillion-pound price tag was paid off.

Today, motorists still pay the Dart Charge of between £2-£6 a day to use the crossing, which National Highways estimates today carries 50 million vehicles a year.

Today, hundreds of staff work throughout the year to keep the Dartford Crossing running.

And for the QE2 it's high winds that can cause the biggest headaches, explains National Highways Team Manager Richard Loveridge."We have to put either speed restrictions or buffer lanes or on rare occasions shut the bridge due to the high winds.

A lorry is barely visible as it travels across the QEII Bridge in Essex. Credit: ITV News

"If it's cross winds, that's more problematic for us, and then we're looking out for high-sided vehicles because they're the ones most affected by it."Several times a year, while most of us are sleeping, the bridge is closed completely for important maintenance."We only get a closure every six weeks, and they're at night, so we get as many people up here as we can," explanis electronics maintenance engineering technician Jamie Hoadley.

It's definitely a surreal experience as it's normally four lanes chock-a-block with traffic, and we're up here and there's no traffic going past, just a lot of people working."

The current Dartford Crossing is congested on a regular basis. Credit: PA

Nicola Bell, National Highways operations director for the South East says of the anniversary: “The Queen Elizabeth II bridge together with the whole Dartford Crossing has proved to be a vital link on the M25 and a great investment in the economy, helping nearly 1.5 billion vehicles cross the river Thames over the past 50 years.

“It continues to bring huge benefits to the economy and with these benefits comes demand. The government is committed to doing all they can to ease traffic flow and improve journeys for the future.”

In recent years, attention has already turned to the need for another crossing east of London, with a proposal for twin tunnels not far from the Dartford Crossing in the pipeline.As for the QE2, its 30th birthday means it's now a quarter of the way through its estimated 120-year lifespan.

Traffic officer Iain MacKenzie reflects: "It's iconic. You ask anyone in Essex or Kent, head towards the QE2, head towards the bridge, everyone knows what it is. It's a national landmark."