High Level Bridge

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High Level Bridge
High Level Bridge and Swing Bridge - Newcastle Upon Tyne - England - 14082004.jpg
The High Level Bridge (rear) before its most recent restoration work, towering above the Swing Bridge across the River Tyne; photograph facing Newcastle.
Carries Public transport motor vehicles
Railway traffic
Crosses River Tyne
Locale Newcastle-Gateshead, England
Heritage status Grade I listed
Design Girder bridge
Total length 407.8 m (1,338 ft)
Width 12.2 m (40 ft)
Longest span 38.1 m (125 ft)
Opened 27 September 1849
The High Level Bridge behind which is the 1781 stone bridge, in a circa 1852 illustration taken from the Gateshead bank looking north east

The High Level Bridge is a road and railway bridge spanning the River Tyne between Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead in North East England.[1]


The High Level Bridge and the 1781 stone bridge, in an 1861 illustration taken from the Gateshead bank looking north west

Designed by Robert Stephenson and built between 1847 and 1849, it was the first major example of a wrought iron tied arch or bow-string girder bridge. It is a simple engineering solution to a difficult problem at the time it was built; the spanning of 1,337 feet (408 m) of river valley, including 512 feet (156 m) across water. The High Level Bridge has six river spans of 125 feet (38 m) length, sitting on masonry piers 46 by 16 feet (14.0 by 4.9 m) up to 131 feet (40 m) height. There are also four land spans on each side, of 36 feet 3 inches (11.05 m). The two-way single carriageway road (since reduced to a single one-way carriageway) and pedestrian walkways occupy the lower deck of the spans, 85 feet (26 m) above the high-water mark, and the railway is on the upper deck 112 feet (34 m) above the high-water mark. The total weight of the structure is 5,000 long tons (5,100 t).[2][3]

According to a contemporary encyclopedia:[4]

Each river span is crossed by four main cast iron arched ribs, with horizontal tie bars. The roadway is situated between a pair of ribs some 20 feet (6.1 m) apart; and walkways are sited on either side of the roadway in a 6-foot (1.8 m) gap between the central and outside ribs. The upper, railway, platform, rests on the arches of the ribs, whilst the lower roadway is suspended from the ribs on wrought iron rods. Each arched rib was cast in five sections. Besides the tie-bars, the ribs are braced by horizontal and vertical bracing frames, while diagonal bracings are inserted in the spandrels, or spaces between the arches and the girders which carry the railway. On the tops of the spandrel pillars, girders extend length-wise, from which other stretch at right-angles across the arched ribs. The whole thus has a perfectly rigid character and is found to bear the heaviest weights without deflection.


Obverse of a medal struck in 1849 to celebrate the 7 June completion of the structure of the High Level Bridge
View from the castle, 2009.

The bridge was built for the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway, and together with Stephenson's Royal Border Bridge at Berwick upon Tweed, completed the line of a London-Edinburgh railway nowadays known as the East Coast Main Line. The bridge was opened to rail traffic, without ceremony, on 15 August 1849. It was officially opened on 27 September 1849 by Queen Victoria; and brought into ordinary use on 4 February 1850.[5]

The total cost of the bridge was £491,153, broken down as follows: the bridge proper cost £243,096, including £112,000 for the metal work, which was produced by Messers Hawks, Crawshay & Co (and subcontractors). The approaches to the bridge cost £113,057, and land and compensation - including to the 650 Newcastle and 130 Gateshead families who were relocated to enable its construction - £135,000.[5]

There were also competing plans - not taken forward - for a low level bridge; in 1836 Richard Grainger with engineer Thomas Sopwith proposed a crossing 20 feet (6.1 m) above high-water mark, running the Newcastle & Carlisle, Great North of England and Brandling Junction railways into a low level terminus. Under their plans, the Scotland railway would follow contour lines to the east and north, whilst the Carlisle line would be taken up inclined planes.[6]

Stephenson's High Level Bridge was designed after, but completed before his equally innovative Britannia Bridge (constructed 1846-50) over the Menai Strait; it can be seen as a second and more elegant version of the Britannia Bridge, and was to influence Isambard Kingdom Brunel in his design of the Royal Albert Bridge (1855; constructed 1859) across the River Tamar at Saltash.[2]

The High Level Bridge began to vibrate like a piece of thin wire,[7] but provided an excellent vantage point for the Great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead in 1854.

In 1906, construction of the King Edward VII Bridge, some 500 yards to the west of the High Level Bridge, was completed. This second bridge addressed the central operational weakness of the single bridge, which was that trains entering the station from the south had to be reversed back across the bridge when returning in that direction. It also meant that locomotives had to switch ends before a train could head north towards Edinburgh.

Since the newer bridge opened, the High Level no longer forms part of the East Coast Main Line. Instead, it provides a route for trains going towards Sunderland, Middlesbrough and, formerly, the Leamside Line. It is also occasionally used for London trains wanting to turn around as the two bridges are linked on the Gateshead side to form a loop, and for trains travelling on the Newcastle to Carlisle line, should timetabling and platform requirements necessitate avoiding the King Edward VII Bridge. For this reason, the western track across the bridge is electrified.

The bridge's roadway formed part of the A1, the main London to Edinburgh road, until 1928 when the wider and stronger Tyne Bridge opened downstream. It also carried a line of the Gateshead tramway system between 1923 and the system's closure in 1951. The Tyne Bridge being the preferred road crossing between Gateshead and Newcastle, the importance of the High Level Bridge to the road network diminished, and it is now reduced to carrying a single southbound-only bus and taxi lane (it not being wide enough for two buses to pass).


One of the first to suggest the idea of a high level bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead was Edward Hutchinson, a Newcastle master-mason, who, when the old Tyne Bridge was swept away in 1771, brought a prospectus and plan before the Newcastle Corporation; but the plan was premature and nothing was done. In 1833 a plan was presented for an elevated suspension bridge, by B. R. Dodd, a Newcastle civil engineer, at an estimated cost of £77,000; but this project was also abandoned. About the year 1839 Messers John and Benjamin Green published a scheme for a high level bridge. Although a committee of the Newcastle Corporation reported in favour of the plan, it likewise was abandoned.

Another plan for a high level bridge was that of Richard Grainger, who proposed to erect a superstructure on the Tyne Bridge, consisting of a viaduct for passengers and other traffic, supported on metal tubes resting upon piers of the bridge. Grainger's proposals, which, like others, left the railway connection severed, did not meet with much favour.

The most important proposal of all was that of John Dobson, the architect of many of Newcastle's finer buildings. His plan provided a road for horse carriages and foot passengers in addition to two lines of railway, and included the formation of a grand central railway station in Neville Street.[8]


The bridge walkway after the restoration, facing south

To ensure its long-term future the bridge was closed to road traffic in February 2005. Essential maintenance included replacement of timber supports beneath the road deck. Although originally expected to reopen in late 2005, the bridge remained closed until 2 June 2008[9] as severe cracks were found in some of its iron girders. In March 2006 the bridge's footpath, which was to have been kept open during the restoration project, was closed at the request of Network Rail due to vandalism and the increasing scale of required works.[10] Extra crash barriers on each side of the roadway were added leaving space for only one lane of traffic. The road deck has now re-opened only in a southbound (towards Gateshead) direction[11] and carries only bus, taxi and north- and southbound pedestrian traffic.


  1. ^ Addyman, John; Fawcett, Bill (1999). The High Level Bridge and Newcastle Central Station – 150 years across the Tyne. North Eastern Railway Association. ISBN 1-873513-28-3. 
  2. ^ a b Charles Matthew Norrie (1956). Bridging the Years - a short history of British Civil Engineering. Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.
  3. ^ George S. Measom, The Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Northern Railway, 1861, Griffin Bohn, London
  4. ^ G. Long, editor. The penny cyclopædia, 1863, Society for the diffusion of useful knowledge.
  5. ^ a b John Latimer. Local Records, or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events. 1857
  6. ^ Richard Grainger, A proposal for concentrating the termini of the Newcastle and Carlisle, the Great North of England, and proposed Edinburgh railways; and for providing spacious and eligible depots, with convenient access, from these several railways to the town of Newcastle, submitted to the consideration of the respective companies, and to the proprietors of property. Newcastle, 1836
  7. ^ Great Conflagration and Explosion at Newcastle and Gateshead in The Illustrated London News, 14 October 1854
  8. ^ The Monthly Chronicle of North-country Lore and Legend, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, W. Scott, 1891, from Live Search Books
  9. ^ First traffic in three years crosses bridge - JournalLive
  10. ^ "Bridge path set to close". The Journal (icNewcastle.co.uk). 2006-02-09. Retrieved 2007-02-20. 
  11. ^ "New start for High Level Bridge". Newcastle City Council. November 2007. Retrieved 23 December 2012. 

External links[edit]

Next railway bridge upstream River Tyne Next railway bridge downstream
Queen Elizabeth II Metro Bridge
(Tyne and Wear Metro) 
High Level Bridge
Grid reference: NZ251636

Next crossing upstream River Tyne Next crossing downstream
Queen Elizabeth II Metro Bridge  High Level Bridge
Grid reference: NZ251636
Swing Bridge 

Coordinates: 54°58′01″N 1°36′29″W / 54.967°N 1.608°W / 54.967; -1.608