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  Newcastle Railway Bridges

Newcastle's topography posed a number of challenges when it came to linking up the railways which converged there. The most obvious is the steep-sided valley of the River Tyne at this point, which meant that any sensible railway crossing had to be made at a high level. Another is the nature of the north bank, originally furrowed by a succession of steep, narrow valleys, or denes, occupied by subsidiary streams. From west to east the most prominent of these streams were the Skinner Burn, now supplanted by the road called Forth Banks; the Lort Burn, replaced by Dean Street; the Pandon Burn; and the Ouseburn, which is the only one still visible in the lower part of its course.

Ouseburn Viaduct

The first major railway bridge in this area is the Ouseburn Viaduct, built by the Newcastle & North Shields Railway and brought into public use in June 1839. The company divided its engineering responsibilities between John Straker, who devised the route, Robert Nicholson, who supervised its construction, and John Green, who designed the major bridges and oversaw their building. Green was an experienced architect and bridge designer, usually working in masonry but with an interest in other techniques. To reduce the initial outlay, he produced a novel design for the Ouseburn Viaduct and its counterpart at Willington Dene, employing laminated timber arches borne on sturdy masonry piers. This meant that in due course the arches could be rebuilt in more permanent materials once the railway was producing a healthy income. Fortunately, by the time that proved necessary the line had become the responsibility of Thomas Elliot Harrison, the NER Engineer. He had a good eye for structures and chose to rebuild the arches in wrought iron, replicating the distinctive system of struts by which Green had transferred the deck loading to the arches.

The Ouseburn viaduct seen from the SE, along with the ironworks plate for the reconstruction. The pier ends are treated like gothic buttresses, with successive step-backs which lighten the appearance of the structure. The 1884-7 widening was carried out on the north side (right-hand side in this view). Some modern steelwork can just be glimpsed behind the trellis work of the spandrels.

The reconstruction of both bridges was carried out in 1869, and sixteen years later the Ouseburn viaduct was widened on the north side to accommodate an extra pair of tracks as part of the Manors to Heaton quadrupling. Joseph Locke copied Green's design for a pair of viaducts - Etherow (1842) and Dinting (1843-4) - on the original main line from Manchester to Sheffield but these were rebuilt in 1859-60 without regard for their original form. Further strengthening of the two Tyneside viaducts has been carried out with great subtlety, leaving their outward appearance unchanged.

High Level Bridge

The extension of the east-coast main line from Gateshead to Berwick entailed the next two major bridges: Robert Stephenson's High Level Bridge across the Tyne and the Newcastle Viaduct which continues the route from Central Station to join the North Shields Railway alignment at Manors. The High Level Bridge, opened to railway traffic in August 1849 and road traffic in February 1850, is one of the great engineering works of its day. It not only provided a vital link in the railway network but met the long-felt want of a high-level road bridge between the centres of Newcastle and Gateshead, avoiding the long drop down to the riverside and climb back.

View looking downstream to the High Level Bridge. Beyond it is the Swing Bridge, completed in 1876 on the alignment of its medieval and Georgian predecessors, and then the New Tyne Bridge, opened in 1928.

Stephenson had built two bridges on the London & Birmingham Railway using cast-iron arches tied by wrought-iron 'chains' and now adapted the idea for a double-deck bridge, placing the railway tracks on top of the arches and hanging the roadway from them via wrought-iron rods concealed within the hollow vertical struts, which - from their superficial resemblance to a colonnade - give the bridge a somewhat architectural air..

One of the six cast-iron spans with (inset) a view of the underside of the road deck and the 'chains' (made up from flat wrought-iron links) which tie the arches. The ironwork was manufactured and assembled by Hawks, Crawshay of Gateshead, then the town's largest employers.

The 'interior' of a span, showing the additional road-deck hangers which have been inserted and clasp the bottom flange of the arch. Given the enormous increase in the weight of rail and road vehicles since 1849, the capacity of the bridge to cope is very impressive. Originally it bore three railway tracks but these were reduced to two in readiness for the main-line electrification which was implemented in 1991.

The High Level Bridge towers above the historic commercial centre down by the Newcastle Quayside.

Newcastle Viaduct

The Newcastle Viaduct was formally opened on 29 August 1848 in conjunction with a temporary wooden Tyne viaduct situated alongside the incomplete High Level Bridge.

The Newcastle Viaduct in the eighteen-fifties, from the first OS town plan. The High Level Bridge rail and road routes come in at the bottom.

The viaduct is almost half a mile long but tends to be obscured by buildings and is generally seen in a number of snapshot views. The first of these comes as one emerges from the north end of the High Level Bridge footway to see the cast-iron arch with which the viaduct begins to insinuate itself between the Castle and the Black Gate. It originally carried two tracks but was widened to four during 1892-4 under the direction of T.E. Harrison's nephew, Charles Augustus Harrison. The extension was carried out on the NW side as a close but not exact match to the original.

The crown steeple of St. Nicholas' cathedral peers over the cast-iron bridge manufactured and assembled in 1848 by John Abbot & Company of Gateshead. On the right is a typical masonry span with a brick arch fronted by stone.

This view from the opposite side shows the care taken by Charles Augustus Harrison in widening the Newcastle Viaduct, so this arched span, built up from riveted steel sections, is a good match to the original. The castle keep still holds its own visually against the intruder.

The viaduct is generally built of sandstone, with shallow segmental arches in the style of the Blyth, Wansbeck, Coquet and Aln viaducts out along the Berwick line. Most of the spans employ brick arch rings but these are concealed by sandstone facing voussoirs. The land drops quickly from the Castle to Dean Street, which is treated as a formal gateway to the upper town, given an elliptical arch wrought entirely in stone with its voussoirs strongly emphasised; above these a further neo-classical touch is provided by a panel of vermiculation (i.e. ornament resembling the squiggles of vermicelli) before coming to the parapet.

The Dean Street arch is followed by three much narrower spans which form part of the same composition. Note how their piers employ sunk panels to provide visual relief and slightly lessen the weight. For many decades, nasty-looking four-storey brick warehouses lurked within these arches.

This view from the opposite side shows the 1848 Dean Street arch on the left, with Charles Harrison's 1894 extension, carried out in granite, on the right. Because the street bends at this point (the junction of Dean Street with The Side), he was compelled to adopt a larger span than the original bridge: 106 feet (32m) instead of 80 feet (24m).

The viaduct then continues as before, disturbed only by the span at the foot of Pilgrim Street. The original bridge here was replaced in connection with the 1928 Tyne Bridge, for which the LNER provided a formal composition in dressed sandstone. This in turn was replaced in the late nineteen-sixties by a wider bridge to accommodate the start of the Central Motorway East.

The LNER bridge, which they dated 1929. seen in the 1960s.

After that, customary viaduct arches resume until we arrive at Manor Chare, formerly an important route up from the Quayside. This  warrants a formal composition, arched entirely in stone, with a shallow segmental arch flanked by a pair of tall arched piers, an austere reworking of the triumphal arch conceit.

On the approach to Manor Chare, the viaduct arches (left) have received some life support in the form of slender concrete arches; the same treatment is seen on some of the viaducts further north on the Berwick line, such as the one over the Coquet near Warkworth.

The loss of local traffic on North Tyneside to the Metro meant that in the run-up to main-line electrification, the number of tracks on the viaduct could be reduced from four to three. The spacing of these allowed the easternmost line of masts supporting the overhead conductor to be set back between the tracks, thereby minimising the visual impact of electrification on the earlier half of the viaduct.

King Edward Bridge

Though the widening of the viaduct had been a major project, Charles Harrison's most distinctive contribution to Tyneside is the King Edward Bridge, which crosses the Tyne from the west end of Central Station. It was a project long cherished by his uncle but only accomplished during 1902-6, long after T.E. Harrison's death. Brought into use on 1 October 1906, it is a formidably sturdy design carrying four tracks on spans of up to 300 feet formed of steel Warren trusses borne on granite piers. It is nowadays used by the majority of main-line trains down to York and London.

    The King Edward Bridge, looking towards the south bank, where the tracks divide: left to Sunderland (or to loop back onto the High Level Bridge) and right to Durham and Darlington. At that point the steel and granite give way to red sandstone for the land arches. Although formally opened by King Edward VII on 10 July 1906, it only came into public use on 1 October with the completion of signalling and station enlargement works.










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© W. Fawcett, 2011