diamond geezer

 Monday, January 23, 2017

One thing Middlesbrough has that nowhere else in England has is a transporter bridge.
"A transporter bridge, also known as a ferry bridge or aerial transfer bridge, is a type of movable bridge that carries a segment of roadway across a river. The gondola is slung from a tall span by wires or a metal frame. The design has been used to cross navigable rivers or other bodies of water where there is a requirement for ship traffic to be able to pass. This has been a rare type of bridge, with fewer than two dozen built, and just twelve that continue to be used today."
What's more Middlesbrough's is the world's longest transporter bridge and, even better, it's still in operation.

The Tees Transporter Bridge was opened in 1911, replacing a steam ferry service. It spans the mighty River Tees, about five miles upstream from the North Sea, before the refineries and chemical works begin in earnest. Two steel towers rise into the sky, currently painted blue, but in their time they've been red, brown, green, whatever. Between these stretches a striking latticed cantilever, approximately 50m above the river, and it's along this that the wires supporting the gondola are drawn. The bridge stands alone on the skyline and is a much-loved local landmark, even featuring in the town's logo in symbolic form.

Unless there's high wind, fog or heavy rain, the bridge is operational every day of the week except Sunday. The gondola shuttles back and forth repeatedly in the morning and evening peaks, and every fifteen minutes at other times of the day, unless any shipping happens to be passing in which case it waits. Staffing levels require a one hour break at noon so that lunch can be taken, and also to allow the machinery holding up the wires to be checked. But for the rest of the time anybody can turn up and be carried across - cars pass for £1.30 and pedestrians for 60p. There's space for nine of the former or 200 of the latter, assuming no other vehicles are on the deck. Bargain. And when in town, surely a must-visit.

To reach the Transporter Bridge head north from the town centre - it's about a ten minute walk from the station. A few heritage buildings remain to the north of the railway, but these fade away across a half-demolished landscape ripe for redevelopment, which is precisely what the council have in mind. A new district called Middlehaven is planned, overlaying the original dockside street layout with tree-line boulevards and parkland, and filling in the gaps with flats. Middlesbrough College has been first to move in, its campus bringing teenage life to a desolate quarter by the Dock Clock Tower. Further downstream lie the Riverside Stadium and Temenos, Anish Kapoor's recent enormous 'butterfly-net' sculpture that rivals the Transporter in scale and size.

Before crossing the Transporter Bridge, be sure to pop into the adjacent Visitor Centre on the south bank. This was recently upgraded with lottery money as part of a post-centenary refurb of the entire structure, with the crossing being closed to traffic for 18 months. The tiny Visitor Centre now has displays including 3D projections, plus a hatchway described as a shop, and a viewing window in front of the Winding House where you can watch the rope uncoiling as the gondola sweeps across. A long-retired volunteer was on hand to chat to me about the bridge, its operation and its character, which added greatly to the experience.

The most amazing facility added during the upgrade is a glass lift. This rises from a ramp beside the Visitor Centre and ratchets up one of the towers on the southern bank, taking about a minute to reach walkway level where there's now an observation deck. From here there are amazing views across Middlesbrough and down the Tees, plus the unnerving sensation of being exposed at the top of a lofty steel structure where only maintenance engineers were ever intended to go. The combined cost of a lift ride, guided tour and double gondola crossing is only £5, which is gobsmackingly good value. But it pays to book ahead. There were no tours during the half-day I was in town - news which I greeted simultaneously with enormous disappointment and vertigo-avoiding joy.

A trip on the gondola more than sufficed. Even better I was fortunate to get the deck entirely to myself, the intermittent stream of vans and taxis having unexpectedly paused. The whole operation's now programmed by computer, hence every crossing takes precisely 2 minutes and 19 seconds, but two staff are still required on board to close the gates, lock the glass doors and collect the fares. Off we glided, revealing the ironwork on which the gondola rests when docked, and passing the bottom of the glass lift on the riverward side. Newly installed glass windows allow flat estuarine views to be seen, if not necessarily enjoyed, while the roof of the gondola obscures the cats-cradle of cabling vaulted overhead.

"Are you coming straight back?" asked the gondolier, well aware that there's very little on the opposite shore for anyone to enjoy. A small linear settlement called Port Clarence follows the adjacent freight line, while the A178 continues north past silos, inland lakes and oil terminals towards, very eventually, the Seal Sands bird reserve and Hartlepool. "There are some benches down there," the man advised, so I walked along the riverbank wall while he and his mate carried nobody back. I loved the bleak loneliness of it all, gazing back towards Middlesbrough's peculiar combination of culture and dereliction, while seagulls wheeled above the grey waters of the Tees. And of course I stared back at the amazing Transporter Bridge, a proud testament to engineering and preservation - long may she operate!

I also had time to explore some of central Middlesbrough before leaving town, in particular mima - the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. This contemporary art gallery opened precisely ten years ago, as part of the wave of civic cultural buildings aimed at kickstarting various peripheral English communities. In this case mima is a fairly typical glass and steel box, run in cooperation with Teesside University, with a mission to be "useful" rather than simply pretty. One long open staircase rises through the atrium at the heart of the building, from the gallery and shop on the ground floor to the events space and roof terrace on the third. The art on display was variable, in some places minor, in others beautiful. I enjoyed the colourful Winifred Nicholson exhibition, and the Brexit-focused scribblings in The Office of Useful Art. I greatly admired a marvellous earthenware necklace punched out from a plate in the Collection Gallery. I almost worked out what the slabs inlaid in the adjacent garden square were meant to represent, while joining a young mum and her toddler on the upper terrace. I did not stop for coffee and kedgeree in The Smeltery.

The civic heart of town rubs up beside streets of close-packed terraces, where dock workers and their families would once have lived. One glance in an estate agents window reveals a few homes for sale here for under £50000, more generally under £100000, as if to mock anyone stupid enough to pay hugely more for hugely less in London. The shopping centre stretches to all the big name chains, and there is one street of perky cafes and boutiques for those not wedded to the necessity of Aldi. I didn't have time to head south to the Dorman Museum, nor to the suburb that was Captain Cook's birthplace where (in the summer months) another heritage home awaits. I think I was expecting Middlesbrough to be a more prominent kind of place, whereas the Tees Valley is more a sprawl of merged industrial centres with collective importance, a one-time powerhouse getting by on EU grants and chemical works that nowhere else would bear. There's much to explore hereabouts, but the marvellous Transporter Bridge will do nicely for a first attempt.

My Middlesbrough gallery
There are 36 photos (mostly of the bridge) [slideshow]

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