George Osborne must be pinning his hopes on the Ovingham bridge. The reconstruction of the 130 year old bridge, at a cost of £2.2m, is the centrepiece of a programme of road improvements in the North East. As we all know, infrastructure investment is the key to economic recovery.
When those of us still standing look back in twenty years time, we will raise a glass to the Ovingham Bridge. We may by then see high speed trains gliding into Newcastle station but we will remember with affection the role played by the Ovingham Bridge in in the economic recovery of the nation.
In the short term, we will suffer. The bridge will be closed for twelve months whilst every nut and bolt in its creaking structure is renewed. At the current rate of progress, the approach road to the Stocksfield bridge, which will bear the diverted traffic may just have reopened in time.
This has been closed following a landslip which Chips, my fellow swimmer, whose morning journey to the pool has increased by fifteen minutes each way, has borne with commendable fortitude. We are good at fortitude and the closure of the Ovingham bridge will provide ample opportunity to exercise this talent.
The people of Ovingham will sleep soundly at night without the constant clanking of cars crossing a bridge built out of a Meccano set. They were reportedly offered a new bridge a few years back, but they turned it down because it would increase the traffic flow through their historic village.
There was also talk of an entirely new river crossing further downstream that would by pass Ovingham altogether and provide a new route for the commuters of Prudhoe to the A69 trunk road. But hell would freeze over before this Chancellor sanctioned that kind of expenditure.
And so an antiquated and inadequate bridge, built when the metropolis of Prudhoe ( population now 11,500 ) was only a glint in the Duke of Northumberland’s eye, will be taken apart and patched up for at least the second time since I have lived in the Tyne Valley. It exemplifies the wartime tradition of make do and mend.
For those of you unfamiliar with the area, I should explain that the historic bridge has a single carriageway, just wide enough for one car to cross in one direction at a time. There is a semblance of a passing place in the middle of the bridge which only a dare devil would willingly attempt.
Unlike the Newburn Bridge, further downstream, which is also single carriageway, the Ovingham bridge is not controlled by traffic lights and so an unspoken and unwritten ( there are no warning signs) code of conduct has developed about how to drive across the bridge.
If the car ahead has passed the mid way point, the next driver will stop and cede the bridge to the car waiting at the other end. If the car ahead has not quite reached the middle, it is in order to put your foot down and catch it up. In my experience, as someone who crosses the bridge most days, the social etiquette is never breached.
It is more remarkable as the drivers at either end of the bridge do not have eye contact. There is none of the “after you, I insist” game that is played in deciding who should go through a door first. This is well rehearsed procedure that enables cars to cross the bridge in a far more efficient way than traffic lights could ever engineer.
The vast majority of Ovingham Bridgers are locals and it could be claimed that the give and take developed by crossing the bridge, analogous to the learned behaviour of a rat in a rat run, has a beneficial effect on those living in the surrounding community.
I notice it in the good natured early morning queue in the paper shop and in the general bonhomie amongst the people walking along Tyne Riverside Park. “ Ah, “ I think, “ they must have just crossed the bridge”. I am sure that the world would be a better place if everyone drove across the Ovingham bridge every day, though the traffic jams would be a major problem..
Sadly, the goodwill does not extend to strangers. The uninitiated are pitied. They can be spotted by their painfully slow approach to the mouth of bridge, presumably in fear that their car will not fit between its tramlines despite overwhelming evidence that every other car can do so.
The first time driver, known affectionately as an ‘Ovirginhamer’ , then proceeds at a snail’s pace and can often be seen sweating or even screaming. They have not realised that once your car is on the bridge, it is quite simple to steer straight ahead and reach the other side. Fear is irrational and bridges are the stuff of nightmares.
The expected response from the locals is a benign smile that masks the feeling of ‘how silly can you get’ or, perhaps better, to keep the eyes down and not embarrass the novice, who will realise their faintheartedness has caused a tailback.
Such sympathy does not extend to the occasional driver who flaunts the rules either in ignorance or defiance of local custom. Ovingham is a genteel place where road rage is unknown but nevertheless drivers who proceed across the bridge without regard to the unwritten rule of giving way are subject to merciless scowls from everyone they pass. Lessons in scowling are given in the Ovingham Reading Room every other Thursday evening.
When the bridge reopens, I hope the Parish Council will introduce a volunteer scheme, modelled on the Olympics, in which the steward would lean into passing cars and ask politely “is this your first time?”
The lessons of single carriageway bridge behaviour could be more widely applied. Other road junctions should be reassessed with a view to decreasing mandatory road controls and encouraging social interaction between drivers. New road schemes could be designed in ways that promote social cohesion.
Indeed it seems that the Chancellor has a hidden agenda here ( A1 campaigners take note.) He may prefer regeneration projects that build social capital on the grounds that goodwill toward our fellows makes us more happy with our lot. Why not invite him to reopen the Ovingham bridge in twelve months time?
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene http://www.shepherdsdene.co.uk