Monday, September 19, 2011

Erimus

I've had a bit of fascination with Middlesbrough for about 8 years now. It's a random story - my introduction to soccer was when I spent the summer of 2002 in Spain, while the World Cup was happening. My first game I watched saw Gaizka Mendieta hit the winning penalty against Ireland. The combination of that and his super-cool name (Basque), saw him become my favorite player, and when he joined Middlesbrough a couple years later, I started following their soccer team. I was pretty excited when, after meeting a fellow explorer here in New York, I learned she was from nearby Hartlepool (a lovely town in its own right). On a recent trip across the pond, I jumped at the chance to head up to the Northeast and finally pay the town a proper visit. And by "proper visit" I of course mean "climbing stuff in the middle of the night."


"Erimus" translates out to "We will be" in Latin. It's an interesting motto for a town whose best days are generally considered behind it - the Boro, as it's known, is one of the old, mid-sized industrial towns of the Northeast that, while not facing quite the same sort of decline as some its counterparts in the rust belt of the United States, has yet to really reinvent itself. Think somewhere like Milwaukee. In short, it's not exactly the kind of place overseas visitors generally make a destination out of.

I only had about 36 hours in the Northeast, but it was enough to confirm my love. I mean, when you waking up to rainbows over picturesque British towns, it's kind of an omen (not to mention crazy Australians in their underwear). 8 hours later we were climbing bridges.


Our appetizer was the Teas-Newport Bridge, the first major lift bridge built in England, and - rumor has it - the host of a recent addition to the (obviously NSFW) sex on bridges club. I hadn't climbed a bridge superstructure in a while and was pretty excited to do so, but started having second thoughts about 2/3 of the way up when I realized that what was flaking off in my hands wasn't just paint, but rusted metal. When I felt a couple crunches beneath my feet, I decided I'd best monkey my way over to the ladder to finish the climb.

Top of the Tees-Newport. Photo by Lucinda Grange 

After this, it was time for the main course - the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge (don't be fooled - it's still the middle of the night. I shot this photo the following day).

You might look at this picture and remark "wait - how is that a bridge?" And the answer is, "it isn't." That elaborate structure was designed and built solely as a truss mechanism. Wires hang down from a cart that runs in a track under the transverse, and connext with a platform floating on the water. A big cable is attached to this cart from the small building with the chimney that you can see in the foreground on the right. Every 15 minutes or so they take in or let out this cable, which moves the cart, which then guides the platform (which holds up to 9 cars and about 200 people) across the river. In essence, it's several thousand tons of metal put together in order to haul a ferry slightly larger than a boxing ring. Why they don't just have the ferry is beyond me.

Dozens of these had actually been created in the early part of the 20th century, with only a few still working and a few more (like this one I had seen in Buenos Aires) standing but long abandoned. Having failed to climb the one in Buenos Aires, I was pretty excited to get up this one. In true British fashion, they even had a sign politely reminding us of the rules. We followed rules #1 and #4 to a T.

While there's a catwalk for maintenance (and bungee jumping) that runs the length of the bridge, only one side of the bridge has stairs. As such, there's actually no way to cross the river on the structure (which I'd consider a baseline for something being called a "bridge") - unless, of course, you want to do this for a couple hundred feet. 

Snaps getting loose - photo by forsaken

I took the stairs - most of the way. Once we got to the catwalk the stairs ended, but there was still about 50 feet of structure above us. And, as always, you don't stop until you get to the top. Even if your camera sucks.


The next day I wanted to head back to the bridge - to ride it, see it in action. I can't really understand the people who only want the trespassing-adventure part of visiting cities, who travel solely for the purpose of checking various tough-to-get-to places off their list. It's fun, but without any context, it's flying across an ocean just to play around on a big jungle gym. What's the point of exploring, of interacting with this great structure up close, if you don't even bother to experience how it actually works? 

We drove over and paid our 70 pence to take the ride, accompanied by a few cars and what appeared to be a fifth grade field trip.


The ride begins
video

On the ride back, we asked the ticket-taker if we could see a bit more of the mechanics of the contraption. We were rewarded with a visit inside the machine room where Alan Murray, the Bridgemaster, spent a good half-hour with us explaining how the bridge works. That big spool on the left is used to wind up and let out the cable that moves the transporter mechanism back and forth across the river.


The spool in action

video

There is no way this would be done in New York or London. We would have asked, they would have said no, and that would have been that. I don't really blame the cities - in large, popular, heavily travelled places many interesting things have a general "lockdown by default" policy. The excuse given (if any) will be usually security or liability, but that's not the real reason - it's to avoid the hassle of eventually being overwhelmed with curiosity seekers. I appreciated the fact that we were in a different paradigm, a different culture, one where the pride that people have in the machines they build, maintain, and operate is manifested by gladly showing them off, not by keeping them smugly hidden away. In fact, for a scant 4 pounds they'll even let you up to the catwalk, weather permitting. You have to follow all four rules though. And I doubt they'll be thrilled if you try to get pictures like the ones above.

Grammatically, and also in the historical context of coming up with the motto, "Erimus" means "we will be" as opposed to "we are" or "we have been." But I started thinking about it in a different way after my 36 hours- "we will be" as opposed to "we will say" or "we will do" or we will (insert verb here)." Thinking about the motto as the motto of a town that goes about it business the way it always has - the kind of town that neither lets this crazy contraption fall into disrepair and abandonment, nor tears it down for a fancy new replacement, but just lets it be.

The bridge turns 100 on October 17th.  If you happen to be in England, head on up for some celebrations -they're going on all month. I wish I could be there for the event  itself though - I do love helping bridges celebrate their centenials. There's also a great book out by Dave Allen about the history of the transporter bridge. You can pick it up in person or online through the Middlesbrough soccer team's store. Go Teesiders!