High Level Bridge

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


Designed by Robert Stephenson and built between 1847 and 1849, it is the first major example of a wrought iron tied arch or bow-string girder bridge. It is a fine and long standing engineering solution to a difficult problem; 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 by 4.9 m) in section and up to 131 feet (40 m) height. There are also four land spans on each side, of 36 feet 3 inches. The single carriageway road and pedestrian walkways occupy the lower deck of the spans, 85 feet (26 m) above the high water mark, and the railway the upper deck 112 feet (34 m) above the high water mark. The total weight of the structure is 5,000 tons.

According to a contemporary encyclopedia:


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.

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.

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.

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.

The High Level Bridge began to vibrate like a piece of thin wire, 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. For this reason, the western track across the bridge is electrified.


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.


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 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. 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 and carries only bus, taxi and north- and southbound pedestrian traffic.


21 photos

Building Activity

  • removed a media and updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via OpenBuildings.com
  • updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator