Spanning the Centuries – the Union Bridge 1820-2020

A review of the book, by Stephen Bunyan

This handsome volume tells the story of the Union Chain Bridge built to cross the Tweed by Captain Samuel Brown a few miles from Berwick on Tweed, between Horncliffe and Fishwick. The book does much more than that. It demonstrates how this bridge built in an unlikely location was to point the way to other important bridges, how a bridge which eventually seemed in a rural back water was eventually realised to have immense interest. It was close to the point of closure, but its huge significance was fortunately recognised. A group of friends was formed and much important support was secured and Roland Paxton became a patron. The Bridge
Samuel Brown [1774-1852] had developed the use of iron chain for ships in the Royal navy and by 1811 they were in regular use. He patented the procedure in 1817.By 1819 he was able to use wrought iron. His original iron works was at Millwall but in 1818 he opened a second works at Pontypridd [or Newbridge] and it was from there that the iron came for the Union bridge.
By 1819 Brown had the contract for the bridge and with John Rennie as consultant and responsible for the masonry started to build the bridge. He decided to use chains with eye bar links This cost £5,000 whereas a masonry bridge would have cost £20,000 and would have required piers in the water.
The bridge was recognised in the Guinness book of records in June 2020 as the world’s oldest road suspension bridge and can still carry vehicular traffic. Its formal opening in 1820 was a major event with a large and distinguished audience and Brown demonstrated its capability by driving a loaded carriage as well as twelve heavy carts of stones over it. Its purpose was to convey Northumberland coal and salt to Scottish farms.
The bridge had an important effect. It inspired Telford in his construction of the Menai bridge. Small built other bridges, eg at Kaleworth in 1830. By 1840 he had built twenty others and Brighton pier.
The Union Bridge inspired the construction in 1826 of an elegant pedestrian chain bridge at Melrose. It was built by J.S Brown [Redpath and Brown] and was designed by John Smith. It was restored in 1991.
The Union Bridge was identified as a building at risk and was closed to traffic in 2007. This caused local concern and a group of friends was formed supported by Roland Paxton and Brian Whittle.
Plans were put in hand for its restoration and matters are well advanced. It was decided to celebrate its bicentenary on 26th July 2020 with a symposium at Horncliffe. Plans were made and distinguished speakers were arranged but Covid 19 put paid to that. The talks by world experts were ready and Roland Paxton who had planned the celebration and driven the movement for restoration has created this excellent book which contains the papers which would have been given as well as the programme for restoration which has been put on hold.

The result is a volume which is a detailed account of international Bridge building up to modern times. The book is richly illustrated with material relating to the Union Bridge and other iconic bridges. The first printing was greeted with wide acclaim.

‘Spanning the Centuries ‘is available from the Friends, at £ 7. 50+£2 postage or from Grieve’s bookshop in Berwick. The Friends address is; Friends of the Chain Bridge, Horncliffe, Berwick on Tweed TD15 2XT
Stephen Bunyan