Bicentenary of Union Bridge Foundation
August 1st 2019
Two hundred years ago this week, the Berwick Advertiser reported a unique ceremony at Tweedhill, on the 26th July 1819, when the foundation stone of what was described as “the Iron Bar Bridge of Suspension” was laid by William Molle, WS, of Maines, Chirnside, the chairman of the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trustees, in the presence of the Commissioners “and of a vast concourse of people from both sides of the Tweed, who were anxious to behold the commencement of this interesting work”. That was something of an understatement, as the Bridge – formally named “the Union Bridge” at the ceremony – has attracted the attention of engineers and engineering historians across the globe during its 200 year history. The Commissioners had obtained parliamentary authority to build what was to become the Union Bridge, the first modern suspension bridge in the world and the oldest such bridge still open to vehicular traffic, and they commissioned retired naval captain, Samuel Brown, who had pioneered the design and strength of wrought iron rigging and anchor chains, to apply his patents to a revolutionary new design of bridge.
Exactly 200 years later, to the day, the Friends of the Union Chain Bridge commemorated the original event by organising a ceremony at Horncliffe House, last Friday, when a new Stone, specially commissioned from local stonemasons and carvers, Hutton Stone, was unveiled by Friends’ Patron, Brian Whittle, a retired civil engineer specialising in the construction and restoration of suspension bridges.
The original Stone had been anointed with corn, wine and oil, and “the blessing of God invoked on the work”. The new Stone was blessed by Alistair Birkett of the Paxton-based Gateways organisation, who himself crosses the Bridge several times daily. It is expected that it will be installed on or next to the Bridge following its anticipated restoration in 2021.
Friends’ Chairman, Robert Hunter, read congratulatory telegrams and letters received from the Akashi Straits bridge in Japan – currently the world’s longest suspension bridge – and the Menai Bridge, which succeeded the Union Bridge as the longest, on its completion in 1826. And Friends’ Trustee Stephen K Jones, had synchronised a similar event on Friday at Pontypridd in South Wales, to unveil a plaque commemorating the now defunct Newbridge Chainworks of Brown Lenox, which supplied the iron chain for the Union Bridge.
Photographs: Top: The Stone unveiled; LtoR: Alistair Birkett, who blessed it; Patron, Brian Whittle, who unveiled it; Friends’ Chairman, Robert Hunter; and Marcus Paine of Hutton Stone, who supplied and carved the Stone.
The World’s Oldest vehicular Suspension Bridge Celebration
July 23rd 2019
The Union Chain Bridge, the world’s oldest vehicular suspension bridge, crossing the border between England and Scotland over the River Tweed, near Berwick, is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the laying of its foundation stone this Friday (26th July, 2019).
The Friends of the Union Bridge, a charity set up to promote the restoration of the bridge are hosting a ceremony in view of the bridge to mark this occasion, closely following the format of the original ceremony 200 years ago.
The iconic engineering structure was designed by Captain Samuel Brown and when completed in 1820 was the longest suspension bridge in the world until the opening of Thomas Telford’s bridge over the Menai Straits in Wales, in 1826.
A commemorative stone has been cut by the renowned local firm of stone masons, Hutton Stone to mark this occasion and will be unveiled at ceremony overlooking the bridge two hundred years to the day of the original ceremony.
The bridge is jointly owned by Northumberland County Council and Scottish Borders Council. They have been joined by the community group, The Friends of the Union Chain Bridge and Museums Northumberland to submit an ambitious £8m restoration plan to restore the bridge and deliver a dynamic community and education programme over the course of the next few years. To partly finance this an application for £3.5m has been made to the National Lottery Heritage Fund with a decision expected in September.
The Chairman of the Friends of the Union Chain Bridge, Robbie Hunter said: ”The 26th July marks an important date for this much loved engineering marvel. When it was built it kick started a revolution in bridge building, not only was it cheaper and quicker to build than a masonry bridge, but importantly it could cross larger spans. It was the longest bridge in the world when completed and there is a direct link between it and such iconic structures as the Menai, Brooklyn, Golden Gate, Humber and the current longest suspension bridge, the phenomenal Akashi bridge (some 15 times longer than the Union Chain Bridge) . It is important not only to this region but internationally that we save this bridge. Its restoration will act as a significant educational tool and economic stimulus to the Borders. To see its demise would be unthinkable and a disaster. We must save it for future generations to enjoy and cherish”
Simultaneously to the unveiling of the stone, a plaque will be unveiled at the site of the Brown Lenox foundry in Pontypridd by Matthew Jones , Chair of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Wales, where the chains were made for the bridge in 1819.The factory was closed in the 1980s and its site is now a Sainsburys supermarket.
The Friends of the Union Chain Bridge are also marking this historic occasion by furthering connections with the surviving bridges who have at one time held the title of the longest suspension bridge in the world. It is hoped that this will foster friendship, fellowship and mutual recognition between this select group of bridges and promote better understanding and appreciation of how these structures have changed the lives for the better of millions of people around the world.
The first communication has already been received from the Japan Society of Civil Engineers. Dr Yukihiro Tsukada, Executive Director of JSCE has written:
‘On behalf of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, we would like to express our sincere congratulations on the occasion of the bicentenary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Union Chain Bridge by the unveiling of a memorial stone tablet on the 26th July 2019 , two hundred years after the first stone was laid.
The history of the modern suspension bridge including the Akashi Bridge in Japan, the longest suspension bridge in the world, has been built on the accumulation of past technology such as the development of iron material and design and construction technology.
The Union Chain Bridge has outstanding historical value in demonstrating the history of the development of suspension bridges in the world and is worthy to be conserved and strengthened for the future. We hope that its value is widely recognized by society and that the planned restoration works will soon get under way.’
Lottery Bid Submitted
The second stage of the Project Partners’ bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) for a grant towards the cost of completely restoring the Union Bridge was submitted at the end of May and a decision is expected to be made in September. This is an exciting but anxious time for everyone concerned, not only with the preparation of the bid, but for the future of this iconic example of engineering innovation. The Partners’ (Northumberland County Council, Scottish Borders Council, the Woodhorn Charitable Trust and the Friends) first stage bid attracted a grant of £360,000 to enable them to work up the bid for the second and crucial stage.
Unique Cross-Border Co-operation
The restoration project is unique in several ways. As the Union Bridge spans the England/ Scotland border, it is owned by English and Scottish local authorities (Northumberland County Council and Scottish Borders Council) and the responsibility for its maintenance is shared between the two, although for practical purposes, Northumberland County Council carries out most of the maintenance work on behalf of both authorities. Planning consents for the restoration works had to be obtained in England and Scotland and English Heritage and Historic Scotland have been closely involved in all aspects of the restoration plans.
As the River Tweed is tidal under the Bridge (and as far inland as Norham) the maritime agencies of both countries have had an input and as the Lower Tweed Estuary is not only a Site of Special Scientific Interest but also a Special Area of Conservation, both Natural England and SEPA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, have been involved in the planning stages. We also understand that this is the first cross-border project to be considered by the NLHF or its predecessor, the Heritage Lottery Fund.
See our April 2019 Newsletter for a fascinating guide to the proposed restoration works.
Foundation Stone Bicentenary
On July 26th 1819, exactly one year to the day before the Bridge was officially opened, William Molle, the Chairman of the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trustees, who had obtained Parliamentary approval for the construction of the Bridge, laid its foundation stone somewhere in the immediate vicinity of the Bridge. We are unsure exactly where the stone was laid because, as Gordon Miller tells us in his book Samuel Brown and Union Chain Bridge, it is now lost and there is no clear guidance as to where the ceremony took place. However, the Friends are arranging to mark the bicentenary of the laying of the foundation stone by unveiling their own stone on the 26th July 2019, exactly two hundred years after the first stone was laid. Because it is hoped that restoration works will start early next year, the new stone will not be placed in a permanent position but will – we hope! – be safely stored until completion of the works so that, unlike its predecessor, it will remind future generations of the Bridge’s heritage and of the laying of the first stone for many years to come. The Friends are very grateful to their corporate sponsors, Hutton Stone Ltd for their generous assistance in providing the new stone and for fitting it into their tight production schedule. The ceremony will take place at the Bridge on Friday July 26th 2019 at 11.30am
Heritage Open Days
Again this year, the Friends will participate in the Berwick area Heritage Open Days scheme by setting up an information stall at the English side of the Bridge on Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th July, from 11am to 3pm. Visitors to the Bridge will be able to obtain first-hand information on the restoration proposals and there will be a range of Bridge-related merchandise on sale in aid of Friends’ funds.
The 2019 Two Nations Run and Family Fun Run
The fourth annual Two Nations Run, organised by the Friends, and crossing the Bridge twice over its 7km course, will take place this year on Sunday July 28th at 11am. Organised with the kind support of The Paxton Trust and Norham Running Club, the 7km (approx.) run starts at Paxton House car park at 11am and follows a varied course along the riverside, country lanes and farmland on both sides of the Tweed, through England and Scotland and crosses the Bridge on its outward and return legs. A shorter 1.8km (approx.) run starts a few minutes later and follows a delightful route through the woods and glades of the Paxton estate – it’s an ideal fun run for all the family. In a beautiful setting and within 50metres of the Paxton House Stables Tea Room – what could be a better way to spend a summer Sunday morning! Registration is from 10am. Also see the Two Nations Run page on this website.