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 tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.