PERHAPS the most exciting way to cross the River Tees is over the Wynch Bridge, as its deck, suspended by slender metal threads, swings and sways at your every step while the river rages over unforgiving square-shaped rocks beneath you.

But no more. Last week, the D&S Times reported how the bridge, near Low Force, had been suddenly closed as an inspection had revealed concerns about the safety of the 190-year-old bridge.

The bridge’s history goes back much further than just the current troubled structure which was built in 1830.

The first bridge near the falls was truly ground-breaking when it was built in 1741 – just seven years after the first iron chain suspension bridge had been built in Europe, in Saxony. Enabled by advances in iron-making technology, the Teesdale bridge was the first suspension bridge in Britain and perhaps just the second in the world.

For such pioneering technology to be employed in such a remote dale is remarkable, although Teesdale was then alive with leadmining. Once the first chains had been secured across the river, the miners were able to wobble their way over.

The first suspension bridge had just a single handrail, and it was held up by homemade links. It was about 60ft wide and 20ft above the rock-filled water.

It, though, was washed away by the Great Flood of 1771, so they rebuilt, this time with two handrails.

Crossing it was still a knee-trembling experience. Indeed, William Hutchinson, the Barnard Castle solicitor and writer, refused to cross it when writing his 1776 book about Teesdale.

He wrote: “To persons accustomed to it, it is a very safe passage, but to strangers it is tremendous. At every step, the chains and their superstructure yield and spring, and there is no safeguard for the passenger but a small hand rail, which if leaned against gives the bridge a swinging motion, whilst beneath you yawns a black and horrid chasm, 60ft in depth, where the torrent rushes with a mighty noise amongst broken rocks."

His head was spinning so sickly that he over-estimated the depth, but his caution was well placed because in 1802, the Wynch Bridge collapsed under the weight of nine men and two women. Three men were plunged into the Tees, two of whom managed to scrabble their ways out.

But a third, a fellow named Bainbridge, was “dashed to pieces” on a rock.

In around 1830, the Duke of Cleveland agreed to help finance its replacement. There was now an air of suspension mania about the country – the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company had built the world’s first railway suspension bridge over the Tees in 1820 at Stockton, and although it was spectacularly unsuccessful, there are still pioneering hanging bridges at Middleham (1830) and Whorlton (1831) in our area.

Perhaps the duke had engineers to advise him because the anchors for the new bridge were moved about ten metres upstream, and this time proper metal parapets were erected to dangle the bridge from rather than it just being dangled uncertainly across the chasm.

It is this bridge which has survived the swayings of time until now. Let’s hope it is reopened soon – we don’t want to be kept in suspense for too long.

WHILE looking for something else completely this week, we came across a lovely snippet in a rival Teesdale newspaper (ok, it was the Mercury) from 1910 about the road bridge over the Tees at Middleton-in-Teesdale which collapsed when it was being built in 1811.

A far-sighted butcher, Richard Attee, “frequently predicted” its collapse, and at the time of the calamity happened to be in the vicinity of the bridge pointing out to anyone who would listen the inevitability of its demise.

“Full of his favourite theme, he ventured beneath it to point out its imperfections, when his wife perceived the structure was moving,” reported the Mercury.

“She instinctively rushed forward to drag him from his perilous situation.

“At this instant, the bridge fell and destroyed them both, in the presence of numerous persons who had assembled.”

So Richard and his wife were killed by the collapse of the bridge he had predicted would collapse.