If bridges convey a person from one side of a river bank to another, what about the traffic flow on the river? The height and width of a medieval arch would have allowed a small boat to pass under, and in the era of canals, height was less of an issue, as narrow boats stretched out longer and longer to carry their cargo. Some bridges are notoriously low. Wroxham Bridge on the Norfolk Broads, built in stone in 1619, is considered the tightest bridge on the Broads, with only 2.21 metres clearance at high tide. When I passed under it on my uncle’s little cruiser, we had to duck our heads.
Perhaps on inland waters, where navigation is no longer an important feature of waterways, low bridges, especially pedestrian crossings, are less of an issue, However, closer to the coast, where rivers become wide and tidal, bridges must still allow shipping to pass beneath. In city ports, the problem is often solved with a swing bridge that pivots on a central pier, or bascule (draw or lifting) bridge. Both methods halt the flow of traffic while tall ships and vessels move onwards, There is another way, and the conception is unique. At its completion, it was the only tilting bridge in the world.
In 1996, Gateshead Council launched a competition to link two sides of the River Tyne, which already has six bridges, including a swing bridge, a bridge for the metro line with a tunnel at the end, a dual rail and road bridge, and the steel arched Tyne Bridge (the current version was built in 1928). The design had to include three features: allow ships to pass beneath, not overshadow the existing bridges, and not obstruct the quayside.
One hundred and fifty designs were submitted. The winner was exceptional. Stretching across 126 metres of the River Tyne, the arched bridge, which is a footbridge, tilted for the first time is June 2001. Each opening and closing of the bridge takes four and half minutes.
The bridge has nicknames: Blinking Eye or Winking Eye. Although eye catching in its own way, the bridge doesn’t block the view of the other great icon of the city, the Tyne Bridge. The main purpose of the tilting Gateshead bridge is to connect the housing on the northern Newcastle side to the cultural developments on the Gateshead side. Excellent, bridges are all about connecting. However, as is often the case where a river divides the landscape and communities, there are rivalries. The original name of the bridge was to be the Baltic Millennium Bridge, named after the Baltic Centre on the Gateshead side. Newcastle City Council objected. Instead, Gateshead opted for the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, but the naming feud continues, and perhaps because Gateshead is the smaller of the two, it has stamped its mark on the map with greater success, after all, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne already has the river in its name.
The bridge has opened up for cultural events, such as the Cutty Sark Tall Ship’s race, and often is lit up for celebrations. Perhaps the most bizarre gathering was 1,700 nude people in 2005 for an art installation by Spencer Tunick, an American photographer.
You can request a tilt for no charge, but you would need to be in a vessel with at least 24m mast, a bit taller than the 2.21 metre clearance at Wroxham.