Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society, January meeting

One of the bridges at Cragside.
One of the bridges at Cragside.

Surely no one knows more about the intricacies of the well-lived life of Lord and Lady Armstrong than Andrew Sawyer, the grandson of a proud Gateshead railway engine driver and a Tyneside sawyer, who gave a talk on Bridging the Gap the Armstrong Way to Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society.

Their photos provided the introduction to a wonderful series from the earliest inventions of Tyneside engineering by Lord Armstrong, earstwhile solicitor, who logically developed the hydraulic crane in order to make life simpler for heavy lifting.

This was the pattern for the rest of his life, ably supported by Margaret his wife, whom he married in 1835 and who supported him in his networking connections with the best original-thinking engineers of his time.

They made their home in Jesmond Dene, where they built several bridges, still to be seen, over the Ouseburn.

The long and elegant Armstrong Bridge was built at the request of Lady Armstrong, who was concerned about the horses struggling with carriages up and down the very steep banks of the Ouseburn valley – now a pedestrian way.

Obviously, bridges are built to make life and travel easier. If one is too low, replace it with a higher one. If you need a wide passage for ships use one stanchion and make it a swing bridge. Hydraulically raising the whole road, build one over rocky ground, or from hill to hill, or very high for a railway, they all ease the journey for road, rail or foot travel.

In order to achieve this, Lord Armstrong, with his acquired engineers as the need arose, developed more efficient and powerful hydraulic engines, neatly hidden underneath the bridges in attractively designed stanchions and ‘gun turrets’.

Looking at the photos and paintings, they all seemed to fit well into their environment.

His Apprentice College on Scotswood Road became the training ground for many famous engineers of the 19th and early 20th century, his own and even Isambard Kingdom Brunell.

As an inventive developer, one of his favourite places was in the drawing office.

Apart from hydraulics and bridges, Armstrong became involved in meeting the needs of war.

Going into partnership with Rendel, the armaments manufacturer, he was required to build boats and ships of increasing size, in order to carry ever larger guns.

To do this, it was necessary to remove an island in the middle of the Tyne at Scotswood, and demolish the too low, stone-arched Georgian bridge, just in order to build the more practical and versatile Swing Bridge for the passage of the new war gun ships.

Armstrong did build abroad, and such bridges as the magnificent hydraulic Tower Bridge in London. However, for those interested in the techniques and variety of his bridges , look no further than the Ouseburn and the lower Tyne. See if you can spot the one with the ‘wire’ sculpture of the fisherman. Take advantage of an open day around the hydraulics of the Swing Bridge . Certainly enjoy a bridge walk in Cragside, around the 40 miles of road and paths, crossing the wood, stone and iron bridges over the burns leading in and out of the lakes and down the Debden Burn.

Did you know that the big holes along the balustrade of the stone bridge over the Debden were for plant pots? Wonderful.

At the next meeting, Prof Iain Moffat will give a talk on The King’s Navy in the time of Nelson and Collingwood, on Friday, February 20, at 7.30pm in The Jubilee Hall, Rothbury.All welcome. Visitors £2.