To say one of Britain’s best-loved bridges is in a sorry state might be an understatement.
The Tyne Bridge is badly rusting, its paint is peeling and the steelworks are visibly corroding, but its custodians have vowed that it will be restored to its former glory in time for its centenary in 2028.
The promise has been made despite a long list of headaches facing a huge engineering project to restore a structure that is as much a symbol of geordie pride as being a vital transport link between Newcastle and Gateshead.
For one thing, maintenance is at least four years overdue. There are also rising and higher-than-budgeted costs because of inflation. Then there is the annual arrival of kittiwakes.
Despite all the problems, there is a determination to get the job done. “We will complete the Tyne Bridge project,” said Newcastle councillor Jane Byrne. “The Tyne Bridge is an iconic part of the north-east landscape, so what it looks like to people and it being a symbol of our pride is incredibly important.”
Alastair Swan, principal engineer at Newcastle city council, agrees that the bridge is in a sorry state. “The bridge clearly looks tired, it looks depressed, it doesn’t look pleasant,” he said. “But it will be something we can be proud of again.”
Swan was speaking as he gave the Guardian a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the bridge to show its many problems, and how restoration is far more than giving it “a lick of paint”.
The tour included the imposing granite towers intended as warehouses but which have remained mostly, aside from the odd event or illegal rave, unused for nearly a century.
The bridge remains, Swan said, a “phenomenal” engineering achievement. In just three years between 1925 and 1928, engineers used pioneering techniques to construct what was at the time the largest single-span steel bridge in Britain.
The bridge has always been green, apart from in the 1960s, when it was painted blue and grey to reflect the livery of councils.
“Cold, grey Tyne gets a warm new colour scheme” ran the headline in the Journal on a story that said the colour scheme was due to be chosen by an expert from the Royal College of Art, until councillors discovered that it would cost £420. Council officials made the choice.
It last had proper maintenance and painting in 2001, a paint job expected to last 18 years. For various reasons, the paint lost its colour much sooner. More than 22 years on, no one disagrees that restoring the bridge is urgent, especially with its centenary in 2028.
A £41.4m bid for central government funding was made in 2019 and finally agreed in June last year when the Department for Transport agreed to give £35.3m, with the remainder to come from councils.
A report to councillors last month detailed significant increases in the prices of materials, pushing up planned costs. That will mean using money earmarked for spending on the central motorway.
Swan estimates that the Tyne Bridge work will take three years. It would be quicker if it was possible to stop the traffic that thunders over the bridge night and day, but no one is proposing that. “You’re looking at 70,000 vehicles a day. Where do you put them?”
Swan was also in charge of the 2001 restoration, and his memory is of it being much easier. with less traffic and fewer health and safety requirements.
There were also no kittiwakes. The birds once enjoyed nesting at the abandoned Baltic flour mills, but moved on when it became a building site to become the Baltic centre for contemporary art.
They moved to the bridge and loved it. Numbers have increased every year, and next month more than 1,200 breeding pairs are expected to arrive and stay until September. As they are a protected species, all bridge work will have to be done in a way that does not disturb them.
Swan is phlegmatic. “They’re part of the Quayside. In engineering, there’s loads of things you have to work around, whether it be wildlife, noise or traffic. It is just one of those things.”
Once the government gives the green light, authorities hope to begin the work in the autumn. It will mean traffic being reduced from four lanes to two.
But it will be done, said Byrne. It has to be. “People care about it. That’s what is important about the north-east: people are very proud of the region, and for north-easterners who live outside, it’s the same thing.
“When you’re on the train, you look for that first glimpse of the Tyne Bridge and you feel like you’re home.
“People do get upset that they think it’s not being looked after as good as it might be. People do want to make sure it is maintained for future generations.”