Northumberland’s Engineering Heritage

Some of us will remember the excitement around the moon landings, nearly 50 years ago, in 1969. We followed every moment avidly and the newspapers were full of information in the run up to this most historic event. A few years later, people would gather just to watch Concorde fly by. And while on holiday, I remember my father taking us to see a new nuclear power station being built. There was an excitement about engineering progress, and this was fuelled by such TV programmes as Tomorrow’s World. I cannot fail to feel that we have lost this excitement in technology, apart from the release of the latest iPhone of course! Maybe this is because the advances we experience are smaller, more subtle, incremental improvements. After all, the cars and aircraft of today, while greatly improved, are not that dissimilar to those of 50 years ago, whereas 50 years before that, we were still flying in stick and string biplanes. And we still don’t have personal rocket back packs, despite the predictions!

But if we imagine going back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, we can envisage the intense emotions that would have been created by some of the early pioneering works. These would have made so much difference to people’s lives, both positive and negative, with the building of roads, canals and railways. Engineering in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was dominated by a few individuals, self-taught, but having an instinctive understanding of the materials they had to work with. They worked out how to build without the help of text books, and although sometimes mistakes did happen, so much of what was done in these early days has survived to today.

So let us look at some of the great engineers of the past who have left a legacy in Northumberland. The first is perhaps John Smeaton, who is considered to be the father of civil engineering. In 1766 his bridge over the Tweed at Coldstream was opened and is still carrying traffic today. A few years later, in 1777 he built a dam on the Coquet at Guyzance which provided power for the nearby Acklington Iron Works. Ground breaking in its day, it survives in its original form, a beautiful structure, hidden by the water that cascades over it. Sadly, it was the location of a tragedy in the dying months of WW2 when, on 17th January 1945, ten soldiers drowned during an exercise when they were swept over the dam while the river was in flood. There is a monument there which reminds us of this tragic event.

If we follow the Tweed few miles downstream from Coldstream, we can see the Union Bridge which is the oldest suspension bridge in the world that can still take vehicles. Designed by Captain Samuel Brown, it used the wrought iron chains that he had developed for use on naval ships to replace the heavy ropes that were used in the rigging. These new chains were so novel that Thomas Telford used them for his famous Menai Bridge which opened in 1826, six years after the Union Bridge. Another of the great early civil engineers, John Rennie, advised about the design of the bridge abutments. At a cost of £7,700, this bridge was a third of the cost of an equivalent masonry bridge, so was a real advance.

Another local ‘star’ is John Dobson. He is considered an architect, but in this era the differences between architecture and engineering were more nuanced than they are today. Telford, for example, designed a low-cost church that was built across the Highlands of Scotland. As well as all the large houses he built, Dobson also designed the Guile Point markers which were built in 1829 and have helped sailors enter Holy Island harbour safely ever since.

Now Thomas Telford, who was perhaps our greatest ever civil engineer, towards the end of his career was involved in establishing a new ‘Great North Road’ between Edinburgh and London, by way of Coldstream. This only got as far south as Morpeth before the dawn of the railway age sounded the death knell of the horse drawn carriage, but although this new road was never completed, we still have his magnificent 1831 bridge over the Wansbeck with its tapered arch, partly intended to funnel flood water more efficiently under the bridge but also makes it so elegant.

The railway age brought to the fore the great Northumbrian father and son of George and Robert Stephenson whose works today still form the basis of so much of our rail network. One of their later works was the great Royal Border Bridge which carries the railway over the Tweed at Berwick. Formally opened in 1850 by Queen Victoria, it was the final link in the chain to complete the east coast railway. As well as this magnificent bridge, we also have the smaller, though no less elegant, viaducts over the Wansbeck and Aln.

Covering a little over eighty years, this rapid tour around some of our engineering heritage will hopefully show how influential these early engineers were in shaping our world today. Their works now form some of the most dramatic man-made sights in our landscape.