THE ties that link Scotland to England are already crumbling. A historic bridge which was constructed to help strengthen the union between the two nations is in danger of being closed.
After years of neglect, the Union Chain Bridge, the oldest surviving iron chain suspension bridge still in use in Europe, could be shut down due to a lack of funds for repairs.
Spanning 129 metres over the River Tweed, the A-listed structure completed in 1820 has signs at each side which have welcomed visitors into either Scotland or England since the early 19th century.
But Scottish Borders Council is considering closing the bridge entirely, citing a mammoth £4.7 million refurbishment bill, with the sum split between it and its neighbouring English council in Northumberland. Communities on both sides of the Tweed said it would be “shocking” if the structure, which was temporarily closed to cars in 2008, was shut altogether, because of its international importance.
The bridge, which connects Fishwick to Horncliffe on the English bank, was designed by Captain Samuel Brown, with its decorative detail paying testament to the strength of the union. Its parapets feature intertwined roses and thistles, complete with the engraved maxim, Vis Unita Fortior, or United Strength is Stronger.But the councils responsible for the bridge’s upkeep have decreed that only one vehicle at a time can now cross the bridge on safety grounds.
Heather Robson, who runs the Chain Bridge Honey Farm, a beekeeping firm and visitor attraction on the English side of the Tweed, said the bridge has suffered years of neglect.
She said: “The bridge’s heritage status has just gone down and down, which shocks me because it’s a forerunner to the Clifton and Menai suspension bridges. It was revolutionary in its design and construction, and the idea that it might be closed is shocking.”
She added that the structure was important UK-wide given its geographic position, but that the two local authorities do little to promote it.
“One of my neighbours jokes that he doesn’t want the Latin inscription to be known in case nationalists come and stage a protest. But on one end of the bridge, someone has scrawled ‘Free Scotland’.
“It’s important nationally and internationally, and I’m surprised both councils in Scotland and England don’t do more to promote it.”
Robson said the closure of the bridge would be both a loss for heritage observers and a major inconvenience for residents. She added: “The majority of our employees live on the Scottish side, and when the bridge was closed temporarily six years ago, they had to go on a 20-mile round trip, with a massive fuel bill at the end of it.”
Gordon Miller, an architect and former sapper in the Royal Engineers from Paxton, recalls carrying out a survey of the bridge in the 1970s. He also believes it is a “tragedy” to witness its decline.
“It’s the first successful road bridge built in the world, and it’s still there and that makes it unique,” he said. “It used to be part of the Tweed Bridges Trust, but when that was wound up, it went to the councils. The tragedy is that there has been a total collapse of any care or maintenance, and it is deteriorating very fast. That annoys me and lots of others.”
The bridge, which is also Grade 1 listed by English Heritage, requires a new chain suspension hanger system, substantial replacement of its deck, upgraded parapets, and repainting. An investigation is also required to establish the condition of its end anchors and tower chains.
In an assessment of the bridges under its care, Scottish Borders Council acknowledges the scale of repairs needed is a “potentially difficult issue.” It warns that one option is to “close the bridge entirely”.
A spokesman admitted that “closure remains a possibility but it is something we will be seeking to avoid.” He added: “Northumberland County Council is the lead authority for the Union Chain Bridge. However, we have a joint responsibility, and are working together to allow the refurbishment of the bridge to take place. It celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2020 and several organisations, including the Berwick Preservation Trust, are keen to secure its long-term future.”
A spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said: “We appreciate the interest in this historic bridge and, with that in mind, we have undertaken an in-depth structural review of the bridge to ascertain its maintenance requirements. We are currently looking into various options and funding strategies with the Scottish Borders Council.”