More than a bridge: on Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne Bridge at 90

Tyne Bridge, with other bridges behind it. Image: Getty.

On 10 October 1928, tens of thousands of citizens of Newcastle and Gateshead lined the streets as King George V officially opened the Tyne Bridge. In the 90 years since the royals first crossed it in their horse-drawn carriage, the Tyne Bridge has become an internationally recognised symbol of Newcastle, and the north-east of England. But more than that, the bridge shows how a practical piece of infrastructure can become an integral part of a city’s culture and identity.

Bridges have been central to life on Tyneside since the second century AD, when the Roman settlement of Pons Aelius - literally Aelian Bridge, named after the family of the emperor Hadrian - was established near the current site of Newcastle’s medieval Castle Keep.

The original Tyne Bridge was built by the Romans on the site of the present-day Swing Bridge. Not just a crucial part of the Roman infrastructure, the bridge at Pons Aelius was also a site of religious worship. Two altars, dedicated to the water gods Neptune and Oceanus, were found on the site of the bridge in the late 19th century. Since the beginning, the bridge was entwined with the identity and culture of locals.

Over the centuries, more bridges - including the dramatic High Level rail and road bridge, opened 1849 - were built across the Tyne. By the 1920s, the enormous expansion in road traffic meant that a new crossing was vital. Work began in August 1925, to a design by the engineering firm of Mott, Hay and Anderson - designers of the strikingly similar Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Contrary to Geordie myth, though, it did not inspire the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although the Australian landmark only opened in 1932, four years after the Tyne Bridge, its design had been approved in 1924 - a year before the Tyne Bridge project was begun. It’s thought though that Mott, Hay and Anderson used the Tyne Bridge as a trial run for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

From prime to decline

The new Tyne Bridge was immediately celebrated as a symbol of Tyneside’s international reputation for industrial excellence – and a source of considerable local pride. The Times reported on January 31, 1928 that “Tynesiders as a whole are proud of this scheme... because of the ingenuity of the idea and of its successful execution”.

For the people of Gateshead, though, the bridge had resulted in the loss of their commercial and industrial centre. Bottle Bank, a steep, busy street that swept down to the Tyne, was largely destroyed to clear the way for construction.

Although the bridge came at a cost to the local community, its was also a beacon of hope during troubled economic times.

The Tyne Bridge project had been proposed in 1924 as a form of unemployment relief for skilled Tyneside workers. Constructing the bridge provided livelihoods for those facing dire employment prospects and an uncertain future. As he opened it, George V expressed his hope that the bridge would “help to bring back to your city the full tide of prosperity”.

In the late 20th century, the landscape of the north-east became closely associated with post industrial decline, as shipyards, engineering firms and coal mines closed. Throughout this period, the Tyne Bridge has stood firm as a symbol of Tyneside resilience and, more recently, of cultural regeneration.


Since the turn of the 21st century, the mills, shipyards and markets that once lined the river banks have been replaced with restaurants, bars and world-renowned cultural centres including the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sage Gateshead.

It is fitting that the cultural rebirth of Tyneside should have taken place against the backdrop of the Tyne Bridge. Regeneration was intended to embody both a physical and symbolic bridging of the gap between Newcastle and Gateshead, encapsulated in the creation of the NewcastleGateshead brand to promote tourism, culture, and business in the region. NewcastleGateshead Quayside is a space that celebrates the industrial past, while creating a place for locals to reimagine collective identities.

In October 2017, the bridge was the setting for Freedom on the Tyne, marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to Newcastle in 1967. This huge performance used the bridge to evoke the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, but also reinforced its connection to cultural identity on Tyneside. For the people of Newcastle and Gateshead, this commemoration of civil rights activism served as a reminder of the region’s long history as a centre of radical politics, and of the global nature of industry and culture on Tyneside, shaped by people from around the world.

#WeAreTheTyne

To pay tribute to the iconic structure, and capture its place in Geordie hearts and minds, we are leading a project called Bridging the Tyne. With #WeAreTheTyne, we are in the process of creating an online archive where members of the public can share stories and images of Newcastle’s bridges.

Bridging the Tyne guided walk. Image: Simon Veit-Wilson Photography/author provided.

And academics from Northumbria University have led members of the public on a guided walk passing under all seven bridges of central Newcastle, giving talks on topics from the geological history of the Tyne Valley, to the experience of Russian revolutionaries in 19th-century Newcastle.

The Tyne Bridge is a beautiful landmark and a practical aid to transport. But more than that, it’s a central part of Newcastle’s cultural landscape and identity, steeped in history, but very much a part of its present and future.

The Conversation

Laura O'Brien, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Hannah E. Martin, PhD Candidate in Historical Geography, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.