The Union Chain Bridge across the River Tweed a few miles upstream from Berwick upon Tweed, was built in 1820. Not only was it the longest iron suspension bridge in the world when built it is also the oldest iron chain suspension bridge in Europe to still carry traffic. It has a 2 ton weight limit and only one vehicle is allowed on the bridge at a time. Well scraped bollards at either end of the bridge restrict the width of vehicles going across.
The bridge was designed by Captain Samuel Brown using the revolutionary technique of suspending the deck using iron bars rather than cables. A retired Naval Officer, he pioneered the development of wrought iron anchor chains and rigging whilst still in the navy. On his retirement he set up an iron works in London and registered a patent for the manufacture of chain links, followed by another patent for ‘Improvements in suspension bridges’ which included his flexible chain link design.
He would have known that a wooden sailing ship is not totally rigid and designed the bridge on the same basis. Originally the deck was supported by three chains of iron bar links on each side. In 1902 a pair of wire rope cables was added. The decking is of timber and the whole structure is designed to flex slightly under load.
It took just under a year to build at a cost of £7700, substantially less than a stone bridge would cost. Part of the money was given by George Home of nearby Paxton House. A bridge crossing was becoming a priority with a growing demand to transport coal and lime from north Northumberland to Berwickshire. It saved an 11mile round trip via Berwick upon Tweed downstream, a 20 mile trip via Coldstream upstream or having to negotiate the New Water Ford. This could be perilous, especially when the river was in flood or at high tide.
On the opening day there was an excited audience watching Captain Brown as he raced across in an open top carriage, waving and cheering. He was followed by a dozen heavily loaded carts to prove the strength and safety of the bridge.
Maintenance was paid for by tolls. The toll keeper’s cottage had been built into the cliffs on the English side of the bridge but was demolished in 1955. There are increasing concerns about the repair bill for the bridge and rumours that it may be closed to traffic. If you want to drive across this remarkable bridge, do it now…
The bridge is virtually impossible to photograph because of all the trees along the river banks. There is a good view of it from the road on the English side just south of the Chain Bridge Honey Farm where there is a gap in the trees.