Border crossing named as world's oldest vehicle suspension bridge by Guinness World Records

It was such cutting-edge technology that the disbelieving opening day crowds held back from crossing until heavily-laden carts proved it would not fall down.

Sunday, 19th July 2020, 7:30 am
Updated Sunday, 19th July 2020, 10:55 am
Union Chain Bridge in 1822.
Union Chain Bridge in 1822.

The Union Chain Bridge, which spans the Border over the Tweed, celebrates its 200th birthday next Sunday with recognition from Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest suspension bridge still carrying vehicles.

The landmark engineering achievement near Berwick was the creation of a Royal Navy captain who had proved the value of chains.

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It paved the way for crossings such as the Forth Road Bridge, which became the world’s longest suspension bridge outside the US when it opened in 1964.

Union Chain Bridge spans the Tweed and the English border at Horncliffe. Picture: Kimberley Powell.

However, plans to mark the Union Chain Bridge’s bicentenary have been severely curtailed because of Covid-19.

A symposium of leading global bridge engineers has been replaced by their lectures being published in a commemorative book, featuring a report from The Scotsman about the bridge’s construction on the back cover.

A celebration concert at nearby Paxton House has been postponed until next year.

But after years of concern about the crossing’s dilapidated state, a £10.5m restoration project is due to start next month.

Professor Roland Paxton, co-patron of the Friends of the Union Chain Bridge.

Anchor technology

The 690-member Friends of the Union Chain Bridge, which lobbied to prevent its closure, said it came two centuries after the structure’s revolutionary creation.

Chairman Robert Hunter said: “Captain Samuel Brown’s radical design was to be the first transport-bearing suspension bridge in Europe and, at its completion, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

“It would enable crossings previously considered impossible to be bridged.”

The chains, designed for ships’ anchors, helped reduce the cost to one quarter of that of a masonry bridge.

Captain Brown had previously built an experimental suspension footbridge and was granted letters patent in 1817 for the design and manufacture of “iron bridges of suspension”.

Scepticism

Mr Hunter said: “The crowds who thronged the river bank and sat in boats on that summer’s day, rather like the crowds who watched the launching of space rockets from Cape Canaveral 150 years later, were in awe of the events before them but also had a certain amount of scepticism that this was possible.

“To win he trust of the spectators that the bridge was safe, Captain Brown went across the bridge in his carriage followed by 12 double-horse carts laden with stones to prove its strength.

“These were followed by the Earl of Home, the Commissioners of Roads, preceded by the Bands of the Berwickshire and Northumberland militia playing the National Anthem.

“This won the trust of the crowds, who then swarmed across the bridge.”

Prominent engineers such as Robert Stephenson attended the opening, while Isambard Kingdom Brunel later visited.

Professor Roland Paxton of Heriot-Watt University, and co-patron of the Friends, who edited the book, said: “Union Bridge established a new era in long-span bridge development that led to the Brooklyn, Golden Gate, Humber and the present longest span of nearly 2km at Akashi Strait in Japan.

"So Union Bridge is in great company.

“An international wide-ranging celebratory bicentenary symposium became a casualty of Covid-19, but its vision continues in the now-published book of speaker essays Spanning the Centuries.”

‘Most ambitious cross-border endeavour’

The Scotsman’s report, which it features, said scientific onlookers “admired very much this curious specimen of the arts, so nicely adjusted in all its parts, while at the same time they considered it, in a national point of view, of much importance.”

The bridge is believed to have been built to carry coal and lime from Northumberland to Berwickshire to improve farmland.

Northumberland County councillor Glen Sanderson said of the restoration scheme, which has been devised with Scottish Borders Council and other funding bodies: “This is a truly great project which must be the largest and most ambitious cross-border and cross-council joint endeavour ever.”

Spanning the Centuries is available for £7.50 plus £2 postage from The Friends of Union Chain Bridge, Chain Bridge House, Horncliffe, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 2XT.

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