Tyne Bridges & Victoria Tunnel
Mon 26th January 2015
Tyne Bridges & Victoria Tunnel Blog for Sunday 25th Jan 2015-01-26
The walk was certainly different to our usual diet and hopefully enjoyable for the 28 people who met at The Cycle Hub, Ouseburn. A morning walking four of the seven bridges crossing the Tyne Gorge between Newcastle and Gateshead and part of the afternoon underground in what would at first sight seem to be an unprepossessing area of industrial Tyneside.
It didn’t take me long to decide to ignore the twenty-one pages of A4 notes that I’d prepared and treat it as an pleasant walk in an unusual location (for Shepherds Walks) instead. Generally speaking we don’t “do” urban areas but on the basis of this walk they have much to offer. The logic of offering this particular walk was to provide a day out in a location that we knew participants could reach easily even if the weather was unhelpful. As it happened the weather was benign for late January and improved as the day progressed. Remember the sunshine on the bridges and at coffee time in the Newcastle Garth by the Black Gate next to the remnants of the old city wall?
Even the starting point proved convenient with the advantage of free parking and access to hot drinks and toilets at the beginning, I even saw a few of our number stocking-up on food supplies there before we started – and none of them were Ian. The overview from near Glasshouse Bridge and the walk along Newcastle Quayside towards the bridges provided a brief introduction to the contrasts between the previously heavily industrialised Lower Ouseburn valley and the historic site of Newcastle. The changes brought about by the redevelopment of the quayside could easily be appreciated by comparing upstream and downstream on both sides of the river. Despite passing it along our route we ignored the newest addition to the Newcastle-Gateshead bridges as we’d be returning over the Millennium Bridge at lunchtime.
Our first bridge of the day was the iconic Tyne Bridge constructed between 1925 and 1928 and definitely not the model for the much larger Sydney Harbour Bridge which was constructed between 1923 and 1932. This urban myth is often quoted but untrue. From the bridge deck the roofscape of Newcastle and the proliferation of building ages and styles was quite striking, the more so as the sun came out along with the cameras. Lots of us are used to driving, or more usually queuing, across the bridge but few actually walk across it and some of the views are amazing e.g. towards the other Tyne bridges, the Sage, the Baltic, down towards Bessie Surtees House etc. Having rounded the corner at the Gateshead end we passed the refurbished Central pub, popularly known as “The Coffin” because of its shape, before walking back across the river via the road deck of the double-decker High Level Bridge. At 166 years old this is the oldest of the seven bridges. The rail deck was opened first by Queen Victoria on 28thSeptember 1879 followed later by the opening of the lower road deck on 5th February 1850. More photographs were quickly followed by morning coffee adjacent to the Newcastle Keep in the sunshine and out of the wind.
Next it was down Dog Leap Stairs past the remains of the old city walls to pass the Guildhall and Bettie Surtees House at ground level having seen them from high above on the Tyne Bridge previously. Onto the Swing Bridge which opened in 1876 and along with the efforts of the Tyne Improvement Commissioners, transformed the fortunes of the Tyne by opening-up the river to shipping by providing access upriver to Armstrong’s Elswick works where the Swing Bridge and its operating gear were manufactured. Several of our number had memories if the Tuxedo Princess which used to be moored on the Gateshead side of the Tyne close by.
We were getting hungry now so a quick walk along to The Baltic meant everyone could get a hot drink etc before crossing the Millennium Bridge (officially opened 7th May 2002), the world’s first tilting bridge. The bridge actually opened to the public 17th September 2001 following its installation on its 19,000 tonne concrete base by one of the world’s largest floating cranes (Asian Hercules II) which brought the 800 tonne steel deck upriver from Wallsend where it had been assembled. We didn’t want to get trapped on the wrong side of the river in case the bridge tilted at lunchtime, we needn’t have bothered as it didn’t happen. Lunch was taken on the Newcastle side of the river before we walked along to the Victoria Tunnel entrance on Ouse Street for 1.30 pm.
Tunnel tours are limited to 15 individuals so the lucky ones went underground and the remainder had to stay with me for a walk around the Lower Ouseburn Valley to see how this relatively small valley had been a key area in the industrial history of Tyneside since even before the industrial revolution. The whole area is in transition and it is amazing how new stands in juxtaposition with the old and derelict, how buildings have been converted to completely different uses, old factory sites cleared and redeveloped. This work has been in progress has since the 1980’s but is gathering momentum despite the recent recession. There were lots of unexpected surprises such as the Seven Stories Centre for Children’s Books, the Cluny, a John Dobson designed flax spinning mill which later became a flour mill, then a bonded warehouse for McPherson’s Cluny Whisky (hence the name) and is now a pub, restaurant and music venue as well as the home of a large artist’s studio group. The former Maynards Toffee Factory site has been converted into a hub for creative businesses. The former Mayling Pottery site is being redeveloped for residential accommodation etc. Another former warehouse has been converted into an upmarket hotel. Even the three bridges that dominate the upper part of the valley are significant in the transport history of the area such as the newest, and pre-cast, Metro Bridge which was the first bridge in the UK to be bonded together by epoxy resin. Alongside it is a mainline railway bridge, still in daily use, which has cast-iron metalwork which replaced the woodwork original i.e. it pre-dates modern steelwork! Even the Ouseburn Farm Environmental Centre occupies the site of a former lead works.
Having done a quick figure-of-eight around the lower valley we arrived back at the tunnel entrance to say goodbye to the emerging first group and Ian escorted them back to their cars. Our turn to be troglodytes for an hour and it proved to be a really interesting experience, next time we must do the two hour tour and learn a lot more. On our return to the cars several of us repaired to The Hub cafe for a hot drink and something to eat before going home. It was a very different day to normal; I hope that you enjoyed it. If anyone feels cheated that you didn’t get the full twenty-one pages of information (or alternatively, you are a chronic insomniac) an email to Jon will stimulate him to send me your email address so that I can send it to you – I won’t hold my breath but we do hope to see you all again soon.
Richard and Ian