diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 20, 2017

TYNESIDE - The seven bridges of Newcastle

The city of Newcastle perches above a gorge on the river Tyne, about nine miles from the North Sea. Facing it on the opposite bank is Gateshead, and linking the two are seven bridges, which between them create the most famous views of the city. Let's start at the downstream end, with the newest of the lot.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge (2001)

If you still have an old pound coin, this bridge might be on it. The architects tackled the issue of crossing a navigable river at a low level in an unusual and original way. A curved counterbalanced deck crosses the Tyne, the inner track for pedestrians only and the outer dual use (including bikes). Normally the span's height is sufficient to allow pleasurecraft underneath, but for anything larger the entire structure is capable of rotating up to 40 degrees, which gives the bridge its nickname, the Winking (or Blinking) Eye.

Most days there'd be no need to raise the bridge at all, but the authorities know a good tourist attraction when they see one, so sometimes it rises two or three times a day. I got lucky on my first day in town, as a siren blared out across the valley and the chirpy controller advised pedestrians to hurry up and cross. Within five minutes the gates at each end were shut and the deck started to semi-perceptibly rise, soon reaching angles more suitable for rock climbers than casual strollers. At maximum elevation a pleasure boat which had been moored up on the bank cast off and chugged underneath, then returned with a satisfied hoot before the deck was lowered again.

I also got lucky on my last day in town, watching the entire scenario from the opposite side alongside a promenade of spectators and contented bar-sippers. What I didn't manage to see was one of its after-sunset tilts, or the bridge illuminated in rainbow colours, but the daytime spectacle was damned impressive enough. I wish I'd saved one of the pound coins as a souvenir.

Tyne Bridge (1928)

This green-painted Geordie icon was designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, the same company as the similar (but larger) Sydney Harbour Bridge. King George V and Queen Mary were the first to drive across, in their Ascot landau, 26 metres above the river and beneath a grand parabolic arch. Crossing on foot feels somewhat exposed, though not vertiginous, hence there's a sign for the Samaritans in the middle for a very good reason.

Lifts were originally built in the four granite towers to allow access from pavement level to the quayside, but these have since closed and the exterior has been taken over by a colony of 800 black-legged kittiwakes. Nowhere else in the world do these birds nest so far from the sea, although they make a hell of a racket and a heck of a mess so aren't universally welcomed.

Swing Bridge (1876)

In approximately the same spot as the Romans built their Pons Aelius, this Victorian bridge spans the Tyne at the foot of the gorge rather than the top. It was built to replace a static crossing, allowing larger ships to pass upstream and stimulating trade, and at the time was the largest swing bridge in the world. The entire structure pivots 90° around a central axis before coming to rest on a long wooden jetty, and is still powered by the original hydraulics. Unlike the Millennium Bridge it only rotates a handful of times a year, and unlike the Tyne Bridge remains pristine and kittiwake-free.

High Level Bridge (1849)

Arguably the city's finest engineering marvel, the High Level Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson (son of George) to create a rail link north to Scotland. Trains passed across the top tier of the bridge, supported by tied cast iron arches, while a roadway and footpath ran directly underneath. Amazingly it still functions the same way today, if in somewhat diminished form. Road traffic is now restricted to buses and taxis southbound only, after a major restoration project ten years ago inserted protective barriers which reduced the available width. Meanwhile the majority of trains now use an upstream bridge, leaving only lighter services on the Sunderland line to follow the High Level.

Walking through as a pedestrian is a peculiar experience, as the road past Newcastle Castle suddenly enters a gloomy metal box in the sky. An old plaque confirms Robert Stephenson and Thomas Harrison as the engineers, and a modern sign offers the terminally depressed a telephone number to ring. The pavement then proceeds through a series of girdered arches, resembling some steampunk promenade, though with numerous telltale white splashes underfoot. A lot of gulls or pigeons - I didn't want to look up and check - roost in the metalwork of each compartmentalised section... and while I walked through this guano tombola scot-free, BestMate was not so lucky.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (1981)
King Edward VII Bridge (1906)

Beyond a stretch of forlornly undeveloped Gateshead riverside, the next two bridges are for trains. The younger of the two is painted blue and serves the Metro, Tyneside's light rail network, with trains emerging briefly from tunnels on either bank of the river allowing passengers to enjoy the view. The larger of the two is older, built to reduce the High Level bottleneck, and consists of four lattice steel spans on concrete piers. If you've ever ridden the East Coast Line north of Durham this is the path you take, and the bridge-tastic panorama is one of three reasons why you should always try to sit on the right hand side of the train.

Redheugh Bridge (1983)

Furthest west of the seven, this prestressed concrete span is the third road bridge to be built in this location and carries the A189 across the Tyne. Princess Diana turned up to open it, as a plaque in the pavement railings above the loftiest drop confirms, hopefully on a day when the wind wasn't gusting too strong. Barely half a mile from the commercial hubbub of Newcastle Quayside, the landscape out this way is bleak and somewhat post-industrial, with a wall of council flats rising on the Gateshead side. Upstream the valley flattens and winds off into distant hills, whereas downstream the view is of the other six bridges... which is the photograph at the top of the post.

» I've uploaded 28 photos of these bridges to Flickr, or you can watch a slideshow here

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