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