01 May 2014

Tyneside Bridges: 6. Swing Bridge

As my trip headed west along the river Tyne, it was like a journey back through time. From the Millennium Bridge (2001), we next visited the Tyne Bridge (1928). Then we arrived at the Swing Bridge, which was completed in 1876.

The Swing Bridge was also the site of the earliest bridges between Newcastle and Gateshead, the Old Tyne Bridges of 1270 and 1871, and before that possibly the Roman Pons Aelius.

It's not my favourite of the bridges over the Tyne. Its shallow trussed form is somewhat nondescript, not to mention structurally irrational. The more obvious arrangement has a peaked form over the central support, as on New York's Macombs Dam Bridge, to take just one of many examples. The arched form of the Tyne Swing Bridge seems to be pretending to be something completely different to what it really is, although with the construction of the Millennium Bridge, it does lead to a nice visual relationship between the three arched bridges in a row.

I do like the central operations room, with its jaunty seaside cap, all positioned directly over the roadway to give the operator the best views of both river and road traffic. The bridge no longer opens frequently, only about 4 times a week.

Perhaps my favourite feature of the bridge is its parapets, which are a very simple metal mesh, made up of woven metal strips and painted white.

It's interesting to compare this with the other moveable bridge on this stretch of river, the far more flamboyant Gateshead Millennium Bridge. The Swing Bridge is the more efficient solution, with the weight of both spans well balanced so as to minimise loads on the operating machinery. Of course, this comes at the cost of a large pier in the middle of the river. In theory, there's an operational risk that the operator and machinery can become isolated if the equipment breaks down while the bridge is in the open position, but I doubt this will have happened often.

Perhaps more interesting is what the two designs say about the different attitudes to economy, to extravagance, and to discretion, between Victoria and modern times. Is it imaginable that a bridge like the Swing Bridge could be built here today, and is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

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