Beauty and grandour of the bridges of the River Tees
PUBLISHED: 01:16 11 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:10 20 February 2013
Mike Watson shares his fascination with the bridges, both ancient and modern, that span the middle reaches of the River Tees Photographs by Gerry France
Upriver, by about five miles towards Darlington, there is a more recent construction. Blackwell Bridge was designed and built by John Green in 1832 and later widened in 1960. The river here is spanned by three graceful arches, a hop, skip and jump separating two counties.
Beneath the bridge, the water is fast flowing, bubbling and energetic and its home for dark shouldered chub, silver darts of dace and speckled trout. Among the shallows heron patiently wait to spear fry. On rocks, covered by shawls of wet moss, the dipper bends and bounces and, just above the surface of the river, kingfishers drill through the air in a blur of iridescent turquoise. Blackwell Bridge is man made but, by contrast, the environment beneath it and around it is beautifully natural.
Further upstream there is a motorway bridge that spans the Tees from the nearby village of Low Coniscliffe in Durham to the outskirts of Cleasby in North Yorkshire.
To be truthful, there is nothing intrinsically appealing about this particular bridge. It is functional. It does a job. It carries traffic north and south on the A1. All day long the whole structure rumbles, roars and vibrates like an angry beast with toothache. Yet pigeons roost among its girders and mink play in the shallows and slink and slide through marginal vegetation. And its this location where most of my fishing days are spent.
It is here that brown trout patrol their territory in the shadows of the bridge. It is here that dace and chub chase the confetti of flies and midge on the surface of the summer river. And it is here in winter, when the wind shrieks through the mouth of the bridge and the river is concrete grey, that only a fool or a fisherman would spend the few hours of daylight trying to catch grayling.
A few miles up the Tees valley is village of Piercebridge. Eighteenth and early 19th century buildings border a spacious green and it is also the site of a third century Roman fort. Just beyond the village green, towards an ancient inn called The George, the river is crossed by a beautiful three-arched bridge. It probably had its origins in the early 16th century but was repaired and widened about 200 years later.
The bridge is not as majestic as Croft Bridge or as busy as the bridges at Blackwell and Low Coniscliffe. It is tucked away on a road bend and I reckon strangers to the area are probably surprised by its sudden appearance.
There are cutwaters right up to the top of the parapet and these provide the perfect safe place to stand, lean, look, stare and think.
I sometimes think that standing on a bridge is like observing the three stages of being alive. The water rushing towards you is the future and what it brings cannot be told. The water flowing beyond your feet is the past. Gone. Its all the known history of sins and triumphs and sad moments and smiles.
But the present is the being on the bridge. It is the here and now, standing with feet apart, and almost surfing with the flow.
Oh yes, occasionally I pose on a bridge, dwell on the deep complexities of life and become a philosopher. But to be honest, I have to admit that most of the time I just lean on my elbows and stare into the river. And I remember that monster of a fish I saw all those years ago and. for a moment I become a child again.
I was seven years old and the fish in the pool beneath the bridge was bigger than my dad. Its head, with huge, marble eyes and gaping white mouth, stuck out from one side of the bridge. And, when I dashed across to the other side, there was the fishs tail like an enormous brown flag waving in the flowing current.
What a monster. At least six feet long. Maybe even eight. My family tried to explain to me that the monster was, in fact, two different fish. One fish coming out of the front door of the bridge, they said, and one fish going in the back door.
Of course they were wrong. Adults and seven year olds never do see the same monsters.
But I think that was the day I fell in love with bridges and, as the years have rolled over, perhaps Ive become a bit obsessive. For instance, I cant just walk across a bridge. No, Ive got to stop and spend a few moments looking over the edge. Ive simply got to see whats going on.
Usually I spot fish or birds and sometimes rats or voles. Occasionally, there are mink and once there was even a roe deer tip-toeing across a shingle beach. More often than not, I fall in tune with the rhythm of the water, become mesmerised and end up with a dopey expression on my face.
I am an angler and have fished along the banks of the River Tees between Croft and Piercebridge for more than 40 years. This is perfection for me because not only do I get the chance to lean over bridges but I can also fish the waters beneath them.
Along the stretch of water I fish, there are four bridges of Durham County that I hold dear to my heart. At one end of my beat is the bridge at Hurworth Place. Here, the River Skerne has joined the Tees and the water is wide. Seven magnificent arches stride across the water joining Durham with North Yorkshire. The arches are ribbed like the ceiling of a cathedral and all but one of the arches are pointed.
In summer, the bridge seems to relax and yawn as the lazy Tees gently meanders on its stroll through this tranquil setting.
But come the depths of winter its a different story. The river carries floodwater and is determined to muscle its way to a sea bound destination. The bridge appears to clench, to draw itself together and on blocks of sandstone resists and diverts every onslaught. For centuries the bridge has joined the villages of Hurworth Place and Croft and its majestic structure signifies a determination to remain there long into the future.