SAD news last week for one of the region’s historic landmarks: the wonder of Whorlton has been closed to walkers and cyclists, as well as cars, due to safety fears.

Whorlton suspension bridge over the Tees is a great survivor – it is almost to suspension bridges what Locomotion No 1 is to railways.

It was built in the earliest days of its era when other bridges all around it were collapsing. It is a testament to the brave faith of the villagers and investors and now, 189 years later, it is the UK's oldest road suspension bridge with its deck supported by its original iron chains, and it is the UK's earliest surviving iron chained suspension bridge with pylons at each end.

Over the summer, there was a surge in its popularity among walkers and cyclists who enjoyed the traffic-free opportunity to stroll and roll on the wobbly wood and stand where Winston Churchill had stood in 1942 and look down on the lido.

Whorlton is a backwater, between Gainford and Barnard Castle, and the bridge was constructed as part of the Staindrop to Greta Bridge turnpike – a private road built for the public to use in return for a toll. The expectation was that it would carry coal.

At first, it was to be a conventional bridge with a pillar in the middle. Work started on June 9, 1829, when Miss Headlam, the daughter of the rector of nearby Wycliffe who was also Archdeacon of Richmond, laid the foundation stone "amidst great rejoicings". However, four months later, a flood washed the stones away and the builder went bankrupt.

The investors, who were largely local landowners, realised they needed a different kind of bridge that wasn’t so vulnerable to floods: a bridge where the deck was suspended above the water.

The first suspension bridge in Britain had stood up-stream of Whorlton near Middleton-in-Teesdale. The Wynch Bridge at Low Force and had been erected around 1704 for leadminers. However, this footbridge showed the perils of suspension bridges: in August 1802, one of its chains had snapped, plunging three haymakers 60ft into the Tees below. Amazingly, two survived – but a fellow called Bainbridge was dashed to bits on the rocks.

Suspension bridges were then shunned until Captain Sir Samuel Brown came on the scene. He had served with distinction in the navy during the Napoleonic Wars where he had pioneered the use of iron chains. Then he began dangling bridges off his chains, which he made in a foundry in London.

His first bridge was over the Tweed near Berwick in 1820. It worked well, connecting England and Scotland, and he built another at Montrose before receiving a commission from the Stockton & Darlington Railway for the world’s first railway suspension bridge over the Tees between Stockton and Port Darlington (now Middlesbrough).

Other chain bridges were springing up: the famous one over the Menai straits opened in 1826; in Newcastle, the noted architect John Green was building one over the Tyne at Scotswood, and in North Yorkshire, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, from York, and his partner Edward Welch had hung one over the Ure at Middleham.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

So the people of Whorlton engaged Mr Green, and his son Benjamin, to build them a new-fangled bridge. Construction began.

Almost immediately, the bottom fell out of the suspension bridge world. 1830 was a year of disasters.

On March 19, Sir Samuel’s bridge in Montrose collapsed when 700 people were on it watching a regatta in the Esk below. Three were killed.

In October, the Middleham bridge collapsed when a herd of cows were stomping across – it is alleged that the cattle somehow fell in step, causing massive vibrations that snapped a chain. Two cows drowned.

And then on December 27, Sir Samuel’s railway bridge at Stockton performed dreadfully on its opening day: as the first train went over, the deck rose up like a tidal wave in front of it, and the pillar on the Yorkshire side cracked. The railwaymen had to chain batches of four wagons nine feet apart to distribute the weight more evenly and get their cargoes across.

The engine drivers were still not convinced by the bridge. As they approached, they would set their engines to “crawl”, leap out of the cab and run across the bridge to safety ahead of the slow-moving train. When – or if – it made it across, they’d climb back in and speed off. Sir Samuel’s bridge was replaced in 1844.

The people of Whorlton were undeterred by these disasters. Perhaps because they had faith in their architects, the Greens. They are best known for their Newcastle works like Grey’s Monument, the Theatre Royal, the city station and the Penshaw Monument, but, closer to hand, they designed Blackwell Bridge in Darlington and the Witham Hall in Barnard Castle.

On April 1, 1831, the Greens attached the chains to the Durham pillar of Whorlton bridge. Bridge experts say these chains are remarkably similar to Sir Samuel’s chain patent.

On April 16, the Greens’ 670ft long Scotswood bridge opened without incident, and on July 7, the 180ft-long “elegant structure” at Whorlton opened on July 7 with a long procession. The Barnard Castle Subscription Band and John Green headed it, followed by the bridge committee on horseback, led by the Venerable Archdeacon Headlam, followed by 27 carriages and sundry pedestrians.

They paraded down from the village green, around the sharp Snake Bend, past the toll cottage nestled at the foot of the Durham cliffs, and then they stomped across and climbed up the Yorkshire side to Col Cradock’s Thorpe Hall.

So delighted were they with their new bridge that they turned around and stomped back over it and up the hairpin for a celebratory gala on the green.

In the evening, members of the committee crossed their bridge for a third time as they went to the Morritt Arms at Greta Bridge, where they dined long into the night.

Although Thomas Telford’s 579ft Menai Bridge survives, nearly all of those early suspension bridges in the North-East have gone. Middleham’s bridge was restored after its cow-related collapse, but in 1865, girders of Stockton iron converted into a conventional crossing, although the castellated towers still stand to make it a Yorkshire landmark.

In Newcastle, the Greens’ Scotswood Bridge was demolished in 1967.

Near Berwick, Sir Samuel’s Union Bridge has recently entered the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest chain bridge in the world still carrying vehicles. Only it no longer does. On October 1, it closed for £10.5m of restoration and will not reopen until 2022.

Whorlton has had its issues, too. It entered the ownership of Durham County Council at the start of the 20th Century, when tolls were removed and remedial work stayed some of its swaying.

But still the Whorlton vicar wrote in 1934: "To cross it in a hurricane was a trying ordeal. The bridge heaved up and down in a peculiar manner, resembling somewhat a ship at sea."

Still, it was safe enough in December 1942 for Churchill to stand on it and watch men training down below, wading through the water and tackling the steep Durham cliffs in their preparations for D-Day.

At the start of the 21st Century, it had a £90,000 overhaul, but it was closed to vehicles on July 24, 2019. Now no one can cross until repairs are completed in March 2022 when, Tees crossed, the wonder of Whorlton will come back to life.