Newcastle’s swing bridge is the second oldest bridge across the river Tyne. Have you ever wondered what was inside the Swing Bridge and how it works? We went inside to find out.
What do you think of when you think of Newcastle Upon Tyne? The iconic bridges across the river Tyne must spring to mind. Who is not familiar with the span of the Tyne Bridge? You must have seen the Great North Run on television as thousands of runners cross it’s length. The iconic arch of the Millennium Bridge is another landmark in Newcastle. The footbridge crosses from Newcastle’s quayside to the Baltic in Gateshead. The bridge rotates to let shipping past in a motion that resembles a blinking eye.
The Swing Bridge is one of the oldest bridges across the river. Built 1876 at a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Heavy industry thrived in Newcastle. The Armstrong Works in Elswick was producing hydraulic machinery, cranes and bridges. Steam trains came from the Stephenson Co locomotive works. The Lit and Phil was a meeting place for scientists and innovation thrived. There was a demand for coal in the industrial centres up river but the existing bridge was too low to let them past. The Swing Bridge replaced this bridge. It was able to swing round in a circular motion and let ships past. The ironwork and machinery for the bridge came from the Armstrong Works and is still in use today. At the time the Swing Bridge was the largest bridge of this kind in the world.
The Swing Bridge
Every September there is the chance to see inside the Swing Bridge and see how it all works. These tours are arranged by the Heritage Open Days which allow public access to places of historical interest. Every year I try and take part in a few of these events, Newcastle has so many interesting places to discover. Last year we were lucky enough to get on the swing bridge tour. On a grey Friday my husband and I headed to the Quayside to explore. It was the weekend of the Great North Run so the Tyne Bridge was announcing that fact with a badge. We were a bit early for the tour so went for a wander along quayside. As we walked along a runner passed us at great speed. My husband noticed that it was Mo Farrah but before we had a chance to react he was gone.
Soon it was time for our tour. To get inside the Swing Bridge we had to walk along the footpath at the side of the road. The road is busy with plenty of traffic crossing the bridge at any one time. At the centre of the bridge is a little gate which is locked. Our tour guide unlocked the gate and after climbing down metal stairs we were at the control centre of the swing bridge. I am glad I took the advice to wear sensible shoes and not heels. It would have been impossible to go down the stairs in high heels.
Inside the Swing Bridge
The Swing Bridge is anchored to the river bed with concrete filled cast iron pillars. There are three piers above each of these which the bridge rests on. The bridge is 560 feet in length and swings round the central pier. It does this by using hydraulic power. When the bridge is not swinging the road ends are held in place by cast iron blocks and hydraulic rams. Before we went inside the Swing Bridge we had a look at Newcastle quayside from a different vantage point.
The pump room
Entering though a small door we went into the pump room. This is where the process of swinging the Swing Bridge begins. The room is manned, a bridge man has to be on duty at all time. If the bridge needs to be swung he will set the process in motion. 1924 was the busiest year for the bridge when it swung over 6000 times. Today it rarely opens except for pleasure craft. A maintenance swing happens on the first Wednesday of each month.
The pump room is where the bridge is powered. When the bridge is about to swing water is taken from the Gateshead side of the river and sucked into a storage tank. If you look though the grill on the floor you can see the bottom of the tank, a long way down. The water is then pressurised and transferred into an accumulator which stores the energy. The whole process takes two or three minutes and provides enough water to swing the bridge one and a half times. When the accumulator is ready the engine room is notified and the bridge starts to turn. The hydraulic centre press turns the bridge on it’s rollers which you can see inside the pump room. All the machinery is duplicated in case of failure.
The Engine room
The engine room is on the west side of the bridge and access is via a narrow path. Inside the room is gleaming and full of machinery. The machinery and brass fittings are all the originals from when the bridge was built and are still in perfect working order today. The bridge men take great pride in them and they get polished every day.
Walking into this room you almost feel you are going back in time to the industrial revolution. The large cogs and levers look like they mean business. The mechanics and engineering skill that went into building the bridge are evident and we should be proud we have such an amazing bridge in the centre of our city.
Six facts about the Swing Bridge
- The Swing Bridge is the second oldest bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead. The oldest is the High Level Bridge.
- There were three previous bridges on this site. The first was a Roman Bridge made of wood and stone. This was replaced by a stone Mediaeval Bridge which got washed away in the great flood of 1771. A stone third bridge replaced this which was removed to make room for the Swing Bridge
- The bridge cost £240,000 to build. It would cost around £30 million today
- The first swing was on 17th July 1876. It allowed the Italian navy vessel, the Europa, to take its load to the Armstrong Works.
- When there was a heat wave the metal would expand and weld the bridge to it’s mountings. The fire brigade had to come to cool the bridge with water. The solution was to paint the bridge with a light reflective paint.
- 3000 litres of paint are needed to cover the whole bridge.
Have you ever been inside the Swing Bridge? Let me know below.