The town of Berwick-on-Tweed is situated in the north east tip of England and borders Scotland. Due to its location it had changed hands many times before becoming permanently English in around 1483. The battles between the two nations continued with the market town stuck in the middle until the union of the two kingdoms of Scotland and England. On 6th April 1603, James the Sixth of Scotland crossed the border to travel south to be crowned James the First of England. He probably crossed the River Tweed.
To the west of Berwick the river was forded but due to high levels the river couldn’t always be crossed. A bridge was needed. What was built was the world’s first wrought iron suspension bridge, which was completed before the Menai Suspension Bridge, which was the first to be started.
The bridge was designed by Naval captain Sir Samuel Brown (1776-1852). Brown was into chains. On ships hemp ropes were used and Brown wanted something more durable, so he had blacksmiths experiment with wrought iron chains in the rigging. He took out patents for chain link designs that were without improvements for a hundred years. After his Naval career, he set up a company to supply chains for the navy, including Brunel’s famous steam ship, SS Great Britain.
In 1816 he patented the idea of using wrought iron chain links for a suspension bridge. He submitted plans for the bridge over the River Tweed, and although the bridge is less well-known it was completed in 1820, six years before Telford’s Menai, which still has the credit of being the world’s first major suspension bridge at a span of 176 metres. The Berwick’s Union Chain Bridge has a 137 metre span. The name of the bridge is an appropriate joining of what it stands for – a union of nations and the first wrought iron chain suspension.
Brown built a smaller scale prototype first and tested it with a carriage. He received approval from other bridge builders, John Rennie (London Bridge) and Thomas Telford (Menai bridge). However he didn’t know much about stonework, so Rennie did the masonry work.
At the opening ceremony Brown tested the bridge by driving a chariot and twelve carts across in front of a crowd of 700. The bridge is currently being restored, but has until now been in continuous operation and is the oldest suspension bridge still carrying vehicles. With one side in Scotland, the other in England, I’m sure if it had been in existence a few hundred years ago James the Sixth would have crossed it on route to forming the United Kingdom of England and Scotland.