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Horncliffe, Northumberland

Union Chain Bridge

Last Updated:

5 Apr 2024

Horncliffe, Northumberland

This is a


55.752536, -2.106701

Founded in 


Current status is


Designer (if known):

Capt. Samuel Brown


Listed Grade I

A few miles out of Berwick on the peripheries of the English and Scottish border you’ll find the Union Chain Bridge, a late Georgian masterpiece and upon opening the longest wrought iron suspension bridge on the planet.

Before then, you’d have a long journey to either Berwick or Coldstream in bad weather. Fords were unreliable, and if you had a batch of mail or a dinner party to attend to you’d be screwed. As a result the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trust commissioned Capt. Samuel Brown to design this trailblazing suspension bridge.

He learnt his craft through the Navy, where he was an officer. Hemp ropes proved an issue especially with the constantly enlarging vessels and demands put onto them. He recruited a set of blacksmiths to find an alternative, and came up with his own wrought iron chain.

The bridge opened in 1820 to much fanfare. 700 spectators crossed after the ribbon was cut. Until the 1880s, this bridge was toll only to upkeep, but became free of charge after the abolition of turnpikes. It’s now under the care of Northumberland County Council, and was restored a few years ago.

Listing Description (if available)

The Union Suspension Bridge was erected on behalf of the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trust and opened on 26 July 1820. Spanning the River Tweed (the county and national boundary between Scotland and England), it was the first road suspension bridge in Britain and is the oldest still in use as such. For six years it had the longest span in the world, equal to a rope bridge in Tibet, until surpassed by the Menai Bridge. Technological innovation enabled suspension bridges to span large widths at a fraction of the cost of their masonry equivalents; the Union Bridge being 368ft long, 18ft wide, 27ft above the water and having cost approximately 7500 pounds to erect, rather than the anticipated £20,000 for a stone bridge. Captain Samuel Brown's bar links (patented by him in 1817) were used here for the first time. In 1902-3 the upper wire cables were added in case of a failure in the main chains and further suspenders added to the steel reinforcement at the sides of the timber deck. The deck was renewed in 1871 and again in 1974. Captain Samuel Brown (1776-1851) joined the Royal Navy in 1795. Following the Napoleonic Wars, he formed a partnership with his cousin Samuel Lennox to manufacture anchor cable made from chain for use on naval vessels. Previously cables were made from hemp. His successful designs and the patents he took out on them meant he was soon the Admiralty's sole supplier of chain anchor cables. Beside his work for vessels, Brown also supplied the chainwork for approximately forty piers and suspension bridges. Brighton Chain Pier (1823) is a well-known example of the former and the Union Suspension Bridge being amongst the best examples of the latter. The ‘Union Suspension Bridge (That Part In Scotland)' is also listed as a category A building in the Scottish Borders. It was formerly a scheduled monument and was de-scheduled 20 December 1999.

Both Ordnance Survey shown here depict the Union Bridge between the 1860s and 1890s. What they don't provide is the scale and topography of the area. The Union Bridge lies down a steep cliff, with a harsh gradient from the English side to Bankhead Cottage, It will have been a huge logistical challenge lugging all the materials to the Tweed.

The area was nearly as sparse as it is now, with much the same complexion today bar a few extra cottages. A ford can be seen just north at Bankhead - such would have been the norm before the bridge, but counting on them was difficult given the nature of the weather up here. The old toll house can also be seen on both maps on the end of the bridge.

The 1925 map presents a similar picture, though its lower resolution provides us an insight into the surrounding area. You may notice the site of King Charles I's camp to the east. This was the site of an encampment during the Bishops War, as detailed here:

The site of the Union Bridge is shown in the above illustration as a ford near a battery.


The Union Bridge in 2024


The Chain Bridge, undated. Source: The Chronicle


The Chain Bridge in 1942. The English toll house can be seen on the other side of the river which was demolished in the 50s. Source: Mary Evans / Grenville Collins Postcard Collection

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