Form versus function

If you come from Teesside, there are several things you might consider to be “iconic”.

One of these, which has only attained its venerated status in the last decade or so, is the “parmo”. When I left the area over twenty years ago, we’d never heard of it, but that might be more to do with our limited exposure to any kind of takeaway food than anything else. And as the Guardian article suggests, it’s not exactly unique to southern Cleveland, although I’d bet that no other region is quite so vehement in its defence of something that appears to be essentially an attempt to cram as many calories onto one plate as possible.

Still, any foodstuff which makes its way into a football song (specifically the melodically-challenged and philosophically-dubious “You’ll Never Eat A Parmo”) probably has the right to call itself iconic.

A more human icon is the new manager of Middlesbrough FC, Tony Mowbray. To many on Teesside, especially those of my generation who more or less started our football lives with “Mogga” as the rock of a captain upon which the recovery from the club’s near-liquidation in 1986 was founded, he seems to personify the area’s qualities, a steely metaphor for the industry which filled much of the terrain between Ayresome Park and his birthplace of Saltburn.

The iconography was of course greatly helped by Bruce Rioch’s famous hypothetical lunar expedition, and its subsequent inspiration for the title of one of the country’s longest-established fanzines. Not only was Mowbray Teesside made flesh, but also he now represented a cross between Terry Butcher and Jim Lovell.

But one emblem literally stands out above all others. Now in its one hundredth year of operation, the Transporter Bridge has been literally a Middlesbrough icon for as long as I can remember, as a result of its use on the borough council’s “masthead”. Now much more stylised than the previous incarnation, the twin arrows are nevertheless instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent any time gazing over the Tees valley from the top of Ormesby Bank. (Clicking this link, if you can ignore the rather over-packaged Ford Fiesta and instead concentrate on the horizon, perhaps even zooming in a notch, will give you a flavour of the Teesside sprawl which attracts such disdain from the casual visitor yet such devotion from the locals).

Growing up in Middlesbrough, you are taught a little about the heritage of the region. The names of Bolckow and Vaughan, the founders of the ironworks which caused the town’s explosion as a population centre, are well-known, and visible around the town centre for anybody with a passing interest. If you concentrate at all, you will learn that Teesside practically cornered the global market in structural iconography, with Dorman Long and Cleveland Bridge between them building just about every bridge worth looking at, including pioneering mass production by fobbing the Australians off with a straight copy of the slightly earlier Tyne Bridge (and presumably hoping its original designers wouldn’t notice). And if you enquire into the Transporter, you will find that it is one of only two of its type in Britain, the other crossing the Usk in Newport, South Wales. (There’s one in Warrington as well, but this doesn’t count for two reasons: (a) it hasn’t been used for getting on for fifty years, and (b) it is so ridiculously ugly compared with its Tees counterpart).

And it’s this last fact which gives me the most pause for thought when it comes to the Transporter. Because the question I don’t think I have ever heard asked is “Why?”. Why would an engineer, at a time when it seems engineers could basically do anything they wanted, choose to sling a cradle from a steel lattice a couple of hundred feet tall? Why would they choose to propel it across the river using a rail system which, if it went wrong, would need to be worked on at a great height? And why would they not put a gate on the open end, allowing dozy sitcom stars to drive straight off the end and into the safety netting?

Transporter and Riverside

Transporter Bridge with the Riverside Stadium

I’ve read a fair few articles about the Transporter in the course of today, and none of them seems to answer this question. Wikipedia comes closest, with a reference to a parliamentary insistence that the new structure “had to avoid affecting the river navigation”. But other rivers manage perfectly well without constructing a glorified death slide. The Swing Bridge over the Tyne was thirty-five years old when the Transporter opened. London’s Tower Bridge (another steel lattice, but in this case masquerading as a Gothic cathedral) was built by Sir William Arrol, also involved in the crossing over the Tees, sixteen years earlier, but with opening “bascules” rather than a dangling gondola. (Arrol seems to have had a long partnership with Cleveland Bridge, as both parties were also contractors on the Severn Bridge over half a century later.) The South Wales version mentions “low river banks” as a possible reason, because of the long approaches needed, but I’m not sure how this would preclude a swing or bascule bridge.

The Evening Gazette tells us that the council has commissioned a book on the bridge’s history, to be written by Dave Allan (it’s not immediately clear if this is the chap whose day job is to persuade us that Reach Up by the Perfecto Allstarz is the only possible accompaniment to our Saturday afternoons), and perhaps this will answer the question of “why” a Transporter. Until then, my theory is that it was fifty per cent non-ship-impeding river crossing, and fifty per cent naked demonstration of what Middlesbrough could do given half a chance.

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