Several bridges over a river
Architecture,  Challenge Your Camera,  England,  History

Newcastle: a city and its river

Rarely is a city defined so clearly by one single feature in the way that Newcastle-upon-Tyne is defined by its river. The city’s history has been shaped by the river, especially by shipbuilding; and now that the ship-yards are largely lost to history, the life of the city, especially its cultural and social life, continues to flow from the banks of the Tyne.

Several bridges silhouetted against the sky
Late afternoon on the Quayside

A favourite walk in the city is along the Quayside past the Tyne’s famous bridges. There are seven in total that straddle the river in this central area. From west to east these are:

  • Redheugh Bridge – a modern road bridge, opened in 1983 (replacing an earlier bridge at this point)
  • King Edward VII Bridge – a railway bridge, opened in 1906 to ease congestion in the Central Station
  • Queen Elizabeth II Bridge – carrying the urban Metro trains, opened in 1981
  • High Level Bridge – carrying road and railway, opened in 1849
  • Swing Bridge – a road bridge, opened in 1876
  • Tyne Bridge – also a road bridge and the city’s most famous, opened in 1928
  • Millennium Bridge – used by pedestrians and cyclists, opened in 2001

Of these, it is the easternmost four that are arguably the most interesting and photogenic.

The High Level Bridge

Silhouette of bridges against the sunset
High Level Bridge with Swing Bridge in front and Metro Bridge beyond

The High Level Bridge is possibly not the most attractive of the bridges over the Tyne; but it provides an angular, dramatic contrast to the curves of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges, and the views from a train crossing it can’t be beaten. It was designed by Robert Stephenson and built here between 1847 and 1849. It was the first major bow-string girder bridge to be built, designed to solve the challenge of spanning such a wide river valley. Six of its spans are over the waters of the Tyne, on masonry pillars up to 40 meters high; while on each side of the river a further four spans complete the bridging of the valley. It is a truly impressive piece of engineering, and it is easy to see why its local 19th century nickname was ‘lang legs’!

This bridge provides a river crossing for both road (vehicle and pedestrian) and rail. The road is on the lower of the two levels, while the railway runs on the upper deck. It was built for the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway as part of the London to Edinburgh line (today usually referred to as the East Coast Line). However, when the King Edward VII Bridge was constructed a little to the west of this one in 1906, the East Coast trains started to use that one, as they do today. The High Level is nowadays usually instead used by trains running to Sunderland and Middlesbrough. But the two lines are connected through the Central Station and on the Gateshead side; this allows trains to circle through the cities to turn around and use either bridge when necessary, as a satellite map makes clear:

I think the High Level Bridge looks at its best in the fading light of late afternoon, when a passing train is silhouetted against a dramatic sky. And if you’re lucky enough to arrive in the city on one of the rare intercity trains that still cross this bridge (a few are still routed this way when the station is especially busy), you will have one of the best vantage points for a ‘Welcome to Newcastle’ view of the Tyne.

The Swing Bridge

Three bridges and river reflections
Swing Bridge with High Level and Metro bridges beyond

While many of the bridges that cross the Tyne do so at some height above the water, the Swing Bridge is much lower. It solves the challenge of allowing shipping to pass not by allowing it space, but by moving out of its way!

The bridge stands on what was probably the site of the first bridge across the river in this area, the Roman Pons Aelius. It is certainly on that of the 1270 bridge, so this is the earliest crossing point in the city. It replaced another built here in 1781, which didn’t allow larger ships to pass. This was a major concern for William Armstrong, who owned a manufacturing works a little further up the Tyne, at Elswick, making hydraulic cranes which were used on the Quayside to unload ships, and also weapons, among other things.

To solve the problem Armstrong proposed funding and designing a new bridge, with a hydraulic mechanism to turn it through ninety degrees to allow ships to pass on either side. This mechanism is still in use today, although large ships no longer come up the Tyne and the bridge is only rarely required to move (I have never seen it do so).

Incidentally, Armstrong himself is an interesting character. Among other achievements, he invented a gun that was used on both sides in the American Civil War; built the steam-driven hydraulic pumping engines for Tower Bridge in London; was an early advocate of renewable energy sources; and built Cragside House near Rothbury in Northumberland which was the first in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity. You can read more about him on a website devoted to him: http://www.williamarmstrong.info/. Today his name lives on in a road in the west of the city (in Elswick, home of his manufacturing works); in a park in Heaton in the north east; and a bridge over the Ouseburn in Jesmond Dene.

The Tyne Bridge

Illuminated iron suspension bridge
Evening view with Sage music venue beyond

The Tyne Bridge is the most famous of the seven bridges that cross the river between Newcastle and Gateshead. It was built to replace an earlier (1781) stone bridge and was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in October 1928. Instantly recognisable, it has come to symbolise the city.

It’s often said that the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia was based on the Tyne Bridge, though I’ve also read that it was the other way around and that the Australians got in first; but try telling that to a Geordie! In fact, both are modelled on the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City; but again, no local will want to believe their bridge wasn’t the first and best.

The road is 84 feet above the water and the bridge has a 531 foot span. Its towers are of Cornish granite and were originally designed to serve as warehouses, with five storeys. But the inner floors were never completed and, as a result, the storage areas were never used. Lifts for passengers and goods were built into the towers to provide access to the Quayside but they are no longer in use.

Kittiwakes

Look up at the stone towers that support the great span of the Tyne Bridge and you’ll spot the nests of the kittiwakes. This is the world’s furthest inland breeding colony of these birds, who unlike other gulls haven’t adapted to living off man’s scraps but still live entirely on fish. Now that the River Tyne is clean again, after many years of pollution, there are plenty of fish to be caught there as well as out in the North Sea beyond the river’s mouth. The kittiwakes nesting here must think these great stone towers are cliffs, of course.

The bridge is today considered an important breeding site for these birds; but their nests are threatened by the complaints of nearby residents who dislike the noise and mess they cause. I don’t live here so perhaps it’s unfair of me to comment, but I think it would be a real shame if they were prevented from nesting through the introduction of netting round the towers, as has been proposed.

The Millennium Bridge

Modern bridge over a river in sunshine
Millennium Bridge, looking from Newcastle towards Gateshead

This is the most recent addition to this iconic set of bridges, and possibly my favourite. But please don’t offend the Gateshead folk on the other side of the river by describing this as a bridge in Newcastle!

The full name of this bridge is in fact the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. It was commissioned by Gateshead council to commemorate the millennium, and to link new developments on either side of the river, including the gallery at Baltic, the old flour mill. It certainly succeeds in doing that, making it easy for anyone on the Newcastle side to pop across to check out the latest exhibits or have a meal in the restaurant there. And while there you can check out the viewing gallery on the fifth floor, which gives you a wonderful perspective on the river, its bridges and the city beyond.

The bridge is for use by pedestrians and cyclists only. The brief was to create a bridge that allowed ships to pass underneath; one that didn’t overshadow or spoil the world famous view of the existing bridges. The design solution was to create this light structure which contrasts really well with the solidity of the other bridges, and to engineer it in a way that allows it to tilt upwards for ships to pass.

The winking bridge

When it does so it looks just like an eye winking! These days there aren’t a large number of large ships navigating the river, so it isn’t required to do this frequently. But you can find out the times when the bridge will ‘wink’ on the Gateshead Council website.

One regular occurrence is each Sunday just after midday; so if you’re on the Quayside at this time, perhaps for the market, do go along to watch, as it’s quite a sight. NB neither bridge nor market are operating during the COVID pandemic. Each opening and closing takes four and a half minutes and both arches tilt at once; the one that carries the walkway/cycleway, and the one that supports it from above. As I recently learned from my friend Malcolm in his excellent post about Gateshead, each time the bridge tilts it clears up any litter on the walkways, letting it slip down into special traps at each end.

(The incongruous German music in the background on the video above is from a sausage stall at the Quayside Market!)

Another sight worth catching is of the bridge at night. It is lit up in an ever-changing spectrum of colour; and, from what I’ve observed, the patterns can be different on different nights. Sometimes there are rainbow colours (befitting the shape!) and sometimes each colour appears separately. This is a sight I never tire of; I will happily detour on any evening out in Newcastle to include a stroll on this stretch of the Quayside.

Night scene of a bridge over a river
At night

This is a lovely way to end our walk past Newcastle’s famous bridges, shared for Dr B’s Challenge Your Camera: #7 Bridges.

45 Comments

        • Sarah Wilkie

          At present, yes. The ‘cautious roadmap’ unveiled by our government yesterday would make that feasible in terms of numbers meeting etc., so the big question would be around foreign travel – how easy will it be for people to get here. I think we’ll have a better sense of that by, say, mid May so I’m hoping to make a more firm decision then. DAO has already said he’s cool with us pushing back to May 2022 for Newcastle and ’23 for Malta if necessary, but I hope it won’t be!

          • Nemorino

            Thanks for the info. I haven’t made any plans for anything — except for getting my second jab a week from Saturday.

  • Easymalc

    Another fabulous set of photos Sarah, and the information about the bridges is the icing on the cake. I love to see the kittiwakes but I can well understand how they can become a nightmare to live with. When I walked across the High Level Bridge once there was so much guano piling up that it really must have been a health hazard.

    Newcastle is a great city as you know only too well, but as you say, it’s the River Tyne that makes it so special and the bridges are an integral part of it. Great stuff.

    Of course I can’t leave this page without saying a big thank you for the mention. As Margaret has said we’ve gone travelling to Krakow today – virtually of course.

  • Anonymous

    Great blog as usual. Interesting they have so many kinds of bridges. I like the view from the Quayside and of course the birds the best! I look forward to going to beautiful Newcastle and seeing the river with all the bridges in person for the VT Meet, fingers crossed!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Nancy 🙂 I know it’s you because of your similar comment on FB, but I’m not sure why you’re showing as anonymous – maybe you used a different email address? Anyway, yes, hopefully I’ll be able to show you all these bridges in person at the Meet. Our planned city walk on the Saturday should finish by the Millennium Bridge in time to watch it tilt 🙂

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow, so many bridges so close to each other! I love the Millennium Bridge, but the others are also nice.
    I remember how we’ve walked over the old Medieval stone bridges in Spain and every time we had to stop because I wanted to take a photo … yes, I love bridges ☺️.

  • restlessjo

    I love this stretch of the river. I’ve walked it many times, and sometimes sat at one of the cafés with a friend from Newcastle. The Millennium Bridge is the star but they make a very pleasing combination. 🙂 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Jo, I agree about the Millennium Bridge but yes, the whole stretch is lovely. We often enjoy a drink or lunch at the Pitcher & Piano, or coffee at Great Coffee. I hope such places will survive the lockdowns and be waiting for us when life gets back to some sort of normality!

  • mtncorg

    Bridges are symbolic of many cities. Pittsburgh comes to mind with its slew of bridges crossing the Allegheny and the Monogahela; San Francisco with its two massive bridges; New York with its grouping and of course Portland. The Rose City has twelve bridges crossing the Willamette River – most lift to get out of the way of ships but several built high enough simply stand. In the Rose City, the bridges seek to unify the city split in two by the river.
    Fascinating tour along the Tyne!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Interesting comparisons Mark 🙂 Of course I get it, all those cities have some amazing bridges! I think the point I was making about Newcastle is the part the river has played in its history over the centuries but of course it’s not unique in that – just a bit special. Or maybe I’m biased!!

  • Dr B

    Hi Sarah, thanks for posting and joining my challenge, I love all of your bridge shots from The Toon, and also the fact that you’ve added a lot of description and history to each, always essential in my opinion. I post each challenge weekly. I’ve tried to follow you using the WordPress follow button but it doesn’t seem to be working which is happening a lot these days. Can you see me on your Follower list?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi, and thank you 🙂 I do tend to add quite a bit of text alongside my photos, and I also usually post quite a full page, so thanks for sticking with it!

      No, I don’t see you on my follower list and the number hasn’t gone up to indicate anyone new joining. My ‘Follow me’ button does take a while to load but I assume you could see it, just weren’t able to do anything with it? My most recent new follower was a few days ago so it was working OK then.

      • Dr B

        It keeps asking for name, email etc etc instead of accepting me as a WordPress user to link us together. Is mine working without asking you those questions?

          • Dr B

            Now that is really really odd. First of all when I went to your site a big red button appeared at the top of your blog, it just said follow. Next I went to the bottom of your page, clicked the blue WordPress button that promptly changed from 55 to 56. This seems to happen now and again, absolutely bizarre! Others have complained and written to WordPress

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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