Renewed call for Chain Bridge restoration scheme

Heahter Robson of The Honey Farm standing at the Honey Chain Bridge.
Heahter Robson of The Honey Farm standing at the Honey Chain Bridge.

THE Union Chain Bridge at Horncliffe - the world’s oldest suspension bridge still carrying road traffic - could become the latest restoration project for Berwick Preservation Trust.

The trust, which is on the lookout for a new restoration project following the completion of the £5m Dewar’s Lane Granary redevelopment, is considering the idea.

Jamie Andrew, trust chairman, said: “We are currently looking at a number of projects and have been asked if we could potentially get involved with a project to restore the Chain Bridge.

“It’s still in the very early stages and no decision has been made but it’s fair to say we are looking at the feasibility of whether the trust could get involved.

“If it did, we would be looking to lever in grant funding but responsibility for maintaining it in the long term would remain with Northumberland County Council and Scottish Borders Council.”

Local campaigners are anxious to get the ball rolling given the increasingly ramshackle state of the Grade I listed structure, especially as it nears its 200th anniversary.

Heather Robson from nearby Chain Bridge Honey Farm said: “Given that it’s the world’s oldest suspension bridge still carrying traffic, we feel it deserves better.

“It’s an iconic structure and one we should be very proud of but for some reason it’s been left to slip into this sorry state of disrepair.”

In recent years it has been beset by structural problems, most notably when one of its hangers snapped in high winds in 2007 and it was closed for nearly a year, forcing drivers wanting to travel between Horncliffe and Paxton to follow a 10 mile diversion.

Also, time is nearly up on the five-year limited listed building consent that enabled stainless steel repairs to be made instead of faithful cast iron reproductions. It is thought unlikely that English Heritage would extend this temporary consent so permanent repairs will be needed.

Heather added: “Its year-long closure really brought it home to us that its days as a traffic-carrying bridge could soon be over. There was talk that it would be downgraded to a footbridge which would be a real shame.

“It’s not only important for people trying to get from A to B but on a higher level it’s of such historical importance that it surely merits saving which is why we’re so keen to get something done soon.”

Given the likely cost of repairs and the financial predicament that local authorities are in at the moment, a Trust able to access grant funding is seen as the best way of solving the problem.

“It would be wonderful if the Preservation Trust felt it could get involved in some way to help raise the funds,” said Heather.

“We’re hoping the county council would be open to the idea and we’ve written to the chief executive to try and get his support.”

The issue came up for discussion at Horncliffe Parish Council’s meeting last month and they agreed to invite county councillors and highways officers to a meeting on the Chain Bridge.

For centuries, those wishing to cross the River Tweed in this area would have had to negotiate the New Water Ford which could be perilous, especially when the river was in flood or at high tide.

By the turn of the 19th century, bridging the river became a priority thanks to the growing demand to transport coal and lime from north Northumberland into Berwickshire.

In 1819 Captain Samuel Brown was commissioned by the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trustees to build the Union Chain Bridge, so named because it linked England and Scotland.

The bridge took less than a year to build and was opened on July 26, 1820, having cost just £7,700 - significantly cheaper and quicker than a traditional stone bridge.

Captain Brown demonstrated its strength by driving across in a curricle with 12 loaded carts estimated to weigh 20 tons, quickly followed by 600 spectators.

At the time it was the longest wrought iron suspension bridge in the world with a span of 137 m (449 ft), and the first vehicular bridge of its type in the United Kingdom. Although work started on the Menai Suspension Bridge first, the Chain Bridge was completed earlier.

Originally the deck was supported by three chains of iron bar links on each side but in 1903 a pair of wire rope cables was added. The decking is of timber and the whole structure is designed to flex slightly under load.

Standing on it when a vehicle crosses is reminiscent of being on a ship. For this reason, traffic is now limited to one vehicle on the bridge at any one time.

The bridge has been strengthened and refurbishment on many occasions.