Walking home from Berwick railway station after waving The Husband off to London, I turned the corner to see the magnificent Royal Border Bridge treading a ghostly path across the Tweed. I think you’ll agree it’s a surreal sight. Whenever I look at the bridge I think about its construction and the human stories locked in the ashlar along with the rubble that fills those mighty piers.
As one person who saw the picture on Twitter said: ‘Can imagine the ghostly figure of Mr Stephenson surveying his masterpiece.’ He’d probably have been accompanied by George Barclay Bruce who, at the tender age of 25, was the resident site engineer for the project. Robert Stephenson went to Barclay Bruce’s father’s school in Newcastle, so there was a family connection. George became Robert Stephenson’s apprentice at the age of 15. Robert Stephenson was engrossed in other projects – including being MP for Whitby – during the construction of the bridge.
The story of the building of the bridge is fascinating. It took just three years. But what an intense three years it must have been! There are tales of Irish navvies, who dug the foundations, running amok in Berwick. After the navvies had gone and the construction workers took over, there was often conflict between the company and the men whose pay was frequently delayed. There was a strike over the hated Tommy Tickets (paid instead of cash but only redeemable in the company Tommy Shops where inflated prices were charged for goods) which threatened to delay the project. Barclay Bruce battled with the tricky gravel substrate of the Tweed – traditional piling would not suffice and Nasmyth’s new pile driver was brought in and won the day. And, of course, there was a human cost – a fair number of workers fell to their death from the scaffolding and various other accidents brought tragedy to mainly local families – including that of two women hit by a train whilst they gathered coal in their skirts from along the tracks.
On August 29 1850 the royal train carried Queen Victoria into Berwick (a tad late). The whole town was pomped and pumped. A special viewing platform, built at the station, awaited Her Maj’s dainty foot. Queen Victoria was pleased to declare the bridge worthy to be called the Royal Border Bridge (rather than the Tweedmouth Viaduct as it was called during construction). On that day, the Queen spent eight minutes in total in Berwick. I often wonder if she gave a thought to all the people whose lives were shaped and changed forever by the building of the bridge.