The history of the Royal Border Bridge, Berwick

The Royal Border Bridge was the last link in completing a continuous railway line running between London and Edinburgh.

Designed by Robert Stephenson, the bridge was a more traditional masonry structure than its contemporaries the High Level and Britannia bridges, but it is one that has stood the test of time. 

The last link

By July 1847 the lines from Edinburgh to Berwick (North British Railway) and from Tweedmouth to Newcastle (Newcastle & Berwick Railway) had been opened. The journey between stations at Berwick on one side of the Tweed and Tweedmouth on the other was undertaken by a horse drawn coach. On 15 May 1847 the Newcastle and Berwick Railway laid the foundation stone for a bridge crossing the Tweed which would link Tweedmouth with Berwick.

The bridge, known initially at the ‘Tweed Viaduct’, was designed by Robert Stephenson, assisted by Thomas E Harrison. Contractors McKay & Blackstock were appointed and George Barclay Bruce, a Newcastle-born former apprentice of Robert Stephenson, was chosen to be the Newcastle & Berwick’s resident engineer, overseeing the day to day work.

Design and construction

Not restricted by issues of navigation, the bridge Stephenson designed was a conventional masonry structure which consisted of 28 semicircular arches each of 61½ ft (19m) span, arranged in a gentle curve. 13 arches spanned the river with 15 over land to the south of the river at Tweedmouth. The bridge has a central abutment pier which enabled all 15 land arches to be completed before work started on the arches over the river. Piles for the pier foundations in the riverbed had to penetrate almost 40ft (12m) of dense gravel before reaching bedrock. The bridge was constructed using 8million cubic feet (227,000 cu m) of stone, with the exception of the inner part of the arches which required 2½ million bricks set in cement and faced with stone. The structure has a total length of 2,160ft (656m), a maximum height of 126ft (38m) above the river, while the rails are carried at a height of 120ft (37m). At the height of construction, the workforce numbered 2,700 men.

As work on the Royal Border Bridge started, both Robert Stephenson and Thomas Harrison were heavily involved with the High Level Bridge in Newcastle. Many of the techniques employed in the construction of that bridge were employed in crossing the Tweed. To help with the works and to get the railway moving across the river without having to wait for the permanent structure to be completed, a temporary wooden bridge was built to the east and immediately alongside the line of the permanent structure which was opened to rail traffic in September 1848. The foundation piles for the Royal Border Bridge were driven down to the bedrock also using Nasmyth’s new patent steam powered pile driver.

Opening and lifetime

Although the permanent bridge had originally been scheduled for completion in July 1849, it was not ready for traffic until March 1850. The bridge was opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on 29 August 1850, when she also granted her permission for it to be named the Royal Border Bridge.

In 1989 electrification gantries, specially designed to reduce the visual impact on the bridge and approved by the Royal Fine Art Commission, were installed on the bridge as part of the electrification of the line between London and Edinburgh. After standing for 143 years as a major part of the East Coast Mainline, the Royal Border Bridge underwent significant maintenance for the first time in 1993 in a project in partnership with English Heritage to repair the 15 land based arches. In 2010 to celebrate its 160th anniversary, the bridge was illuminated.

Did you know?

The Royal Border Bridge is actually located entirely in England. The East Coast Main Line crosses the English - Scottish border at Marshall Meadows, which is 2.5 miles north of Berwick.