THE longest rope suspension bridge in the world could soon be built over the River Tees near Barnard Castle and is set to become the major tourist attraction in the area, over-taking The Bowes Museum.
And if that’s not enough, the new bridge might have Royal connections as it could be named in memory of Her Majesty, The Queen Mother (or “Lady Betty” to the people of the dale) and HRH Prince Charles may be asked to officially open it.
Just over a year ago, on February 6, 2002, the Mercury broke the news that Chris Dauber, then secretary to Teesdale Marketing Ltd, had come up with what then seemed to many people to be an off-the wall plan to build an Indiana-Jones type of rope suspension bridge high over the River Tees from the ramparts of the Tees viaduct which was demolished in 1972.
A year on, and many meetings behind the scenes later, Teesdale Marketing on Friday announced that funding has been found for an independent feasibility study into plans for a bridge over the site of the old viaduct.
The study, which has been funded by One North East’s Rural Development Programme and the North Pennine Leader+ programme, will look at whether the bridge is likely to be used and the effect it will have on the local economy.
However, Teesdale Marketing chairman, Bill Oldfield, is confident the bridge would be a world-class attraction and attract over 100,000 visitors a year to the dale.
“I was at a meeting with funders,” said Mr Oldfield. “I was talking about the bridge, and someone said they thought I was seriously under estimating its potential. This would not be a regional attraction, but something world-class.’”
At the moment, the Capilano bridge in Vancouver, Canada, is the longest permanent flexible pedestrian rope suspension bridge in the world. It spans 450 feet across and is 230 feet above the river, in a spectacular setting in North Vancouver, and attracts up to 850,000 visitors a year. Its proud boast is that it may sway and creak, but it is strong enough to support the weight of 10 fighter planes, and strong enough to handle its thousands of visitors.
Although the bridge across the Tees would not be as high, even with the most conservative estimates, it would be 25% longer than the Capilano bridge.
“We think this would be the biggest tourist attraction in the dale,” said David McKnight, the programme manager for the Market Town’s Initiative. “At the minute, The Bowes Museum gets about 60,000 people a year.
“We were thinking this would get about 80,000 to 100,000 people a year, but on the basis of the advice given, it could be 50% more than that.”
The bridge would not detract custom from other tourist attractions in the dale, but would be part of a whole tourism package for Teesdale and the north-east, he said.
It is hoped the bridge would link in with current footpaths to provide a two and a half mile circular walk from Barnard Castle. It would also integrate with the Teesdale Way.
The lifespan of the bridge would be for about 40 years. It is anticipated that it would be free to cross the bridge. However, Teesdale Marketing hopes to secure enough funding to cover any maintenance costs during its lifespan.
One suggestion is to name the bridge in memory of the Queen Mother and invite HRH Prince Charles to open it.
The bridge would be secured with Storm Strands, and Mr Oldfield explained that these could be loosened or tightened at will to enable the bridge to have more of a “wobbly effect.”
Being 150 feet above the ground on a swinging bridge would be part of the appeal for visitors, he said. However, it would be perfectly safe, he said, and the Cleveland Bridge Co, who have advised Teesdale Marketing, claims that people could stand shoulder to shoulder along the length of the bridge and it would take their weight.
“Building the bridge is only likely to take about 18 weeks. It will be the feasibility study, obtaining permission and raising the money, that takes time. Realistically, I hope it will be built by the year after next,” said Mr Oldfield.
“A lot of people think this is a bit of a strange idea, until they actually go to the site where the bridge is going to be.”
To prove his point, he took a party of invited guests to the old viaduct so that we could envisage what the bridge would be like.
With fantastic views of Barnard Castle and a rather hair-raising drop to the river bed, the bridge seems to have the potential to become a major attraction for visitors.
Chris Dauber, who first thought of having a bridge at the site, said: “I had visited the Capilano Bridge in Canada. One day I was standing on the viaduct, and the pound signs flashed up in front of my eyes.
“If this bridge goes ahead, it would be up to Barnard Castle to ensure it is a success. The town would need to be ready for the interest it would generate.”