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Tyne's gatekeeper to roads and river; What is it like to work in one of the North East's most important cultural landmarks and to operate 135 years of engineering history? STUART EDWARDS speaks to George Fenwick of the Tyne's Swing Bridge to find out.

Byline: STUART EDWARDS

FOR 23 years George Fenwick, of Wallsend, has manned the River Tyne Swing Bridge, opening up both road and water to cars and ships alike.

With years of practice, the frightening level of precision needed to connect 12,000 tonnes of bridge to its roads has become second nature to George.

He says: "There's no bigger gap than maybe an inch and a half to connect the fixed and moveable part of the bridge.

"If there's even a slight gap to one side, can you imagine what would happen if somebody fell through the 10ft drop onto the support? That's assuming they don't bounce off into the river." "Common sense can be dangerous too, if someone falls and gets an arm caught or someone takes a run at it in a bike.

"Twelve thousand tonnes of fastmoving bridge; if you get in the way of that, there's nothing I can do, it'll take your arm off."

Such concerns are all part of the job on the Swing Bridge. Since 1898, 63-year-old George has had to ensure that such concerns do not bring both Newcastle and Gateshead to a standstill. He says: "There was this one time where we couldn't open the road for 35 minutes and couple of buses stopped anyone being able to U-turn; apparently the queues stretched right back up to Gosforth.

"Today's [Monday's] swing there just took eight minutes. There's no room for error."

George is married with two children, a son and daughter, so it's not just the well-being of the bridge's users that he has to be vigilant for. Just last year, he had his own lucky escape.

He says: "I was nearly killed because I stood in the wrong place.

"I'm 5ft 8ins and there's a fence by where I was stood that's 6ft high and that now has a massive dent in. If the weight of that bridge had hit me at full speed, I'd be dead. Simple as that."

The Swing Bridge is currently in a Catch 22 situation.

This original Armstrong Whitworth construction is a piece of hydraulic engineering history, due to its 135-yearold history. English Heritage is aware of its historic value, however, the bridge still plays a fundamental part in connecting both banks of the Tyne.

"If you go to places like New York, they've got more modern swing bridges but hydraulic engineering hasn't changed massively.

"You can set it all up so you just press a button and the bridge will line up exactly how it's meant to, but everything beneath, it's all the same machinery. "This bridge will still be used as long as it's got more practical use than it does historical. If they want to close this bridge then they'll have to build another one first."

A major highlight of George's job is the visitor tours of the bridge (available on the first Wednesday of every month). His ability to generate and maintain conversation makes him an ideal Geordie tour guide, so long as the audience at least tries to share his enthusiasm.

He says: "It's good fun a lot of the time to take people around, you get a decent mix of people. Mostly it's just tourists but we had a few people from a trust called Venice in Peril who came over and were just completely obsessed by the engine room.

"A tour is usually booked for an hour but if you've got a good crowd they can go way past that. It's just the ones who stand there with blank faces and don't even try and show any interest that make it difficult when you try and engage with them."

The Swing Bridge is set to be thrust into the public eye next weekend when it will be a major attraction at the Newcastle Gateshead Bridges Festival.

The event is aimed at celebrating the history of the river's iconic bridges and helping a new audience discover them. The entire bridge will be covered in grass, decorated with flowers and lined with lights as an abstract replica of engineer Lord Armstrong's "forgotten garden".

Guided tours of the bridge will also be available, though George himself will not be at the helm.

He says: "It's going to be interesting to how exactly the bridge looks after they've finished preparing it. I'm sure it'll look nice so long as it doesn't rain much. If it has a positive effect on the area and raises awareness then that's a good thing".

* The inaugural Bridges Festival takes place next weekend on Saturday, August 13 from 12pm to 9:30pm and Sunday, August 14 from 10am to 4.30pm. A large number of family activities are on offer. More details can be found online at www.bridgesfestival.com

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 6, 2011
Words:805
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