Breckland Bricks LEGO A4 Mallard on LEGO High Level Bridge at Bricktastic 2024

Shane is a very, very bad man. He’s a fellow member of the LNUR LEGO train club, and he has very expensive and time-consuming ideas I want to build.

And that’s how my LEGO model of Newcastle’s High Level Bridge began: one of Shane’s ideas that stuck in my head last November. We’d been discussing another bridge as a collaborative build (hint: it’s red and Scottish), and I was convinced that was the only bridge I wanted to build this year, but I was wrong.

A sketchy idea

Whilst we use Studio to create digital LEGO models at work, I much prefer the old fashioned approach at home. This is largely because LEGO’s appeal as a hobby to me is it is very tactile, and takes me away from screen time. I sketched out the footprint of the bridge a few times with pen and paper, to try and understand the likely sizes and scales of everything.

It was quickly apparent that this wasn’t going to be a direct scale model – it would need compressing and squeezing down to become more manageable, whilst allowing it to still be recognisable as the High Level Bridge. Part of the joy of LEGO model building is we can skew and rescale things, because the LEGO figures themselves are such weird proportions.

Here’s a very rough original sketch I found in one of my notebooks, noting where the bridge supports would need to sit within the module sizes we use for the train club display:

Newcastle High Level Bridge LEGO model - sketch of piers and locations

A very brief history of the High Level Bridge

Started in January 1847, the High Level Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson, and the engineer was T E Harrison. The design provided two decks – the lower deck for road traffic, and the upper deck for rail traffic. There had been discussion of a rail crossing of the Tyne at a low level, but this proposal called for a “high level” crossing, creating the stunning bridge seen today.  

The bridge took its first train on 29 August 1948 over the first arch in place, much work remaining to be completed. The first passenger train crossed after approval by an inspector on 11th August 1849.

The bridge sits some 37 metres above the high tide level of the River Tyne, and is of a girder bridge design, with spans of 38 metres. This height was required to allow shipping to pass further up the River Tyne – previously a very industrious area. The High Level Bridge is now Grade I listed, and has a total length of 407.8 metres, with a width of 12.2 metres.

Allegedly, the iron bridge decks were painted a stone-like colour to ease concerns about the iron not being strong enough to support the weight of the bridge and its traffic. This proved frustrating in the LEGO model as I would have liked the bridge deck to be a different shade of tan or yellow, but part availability became a factor!

Reference materials

I was lucky enough to live in – or near – Newcastle for 16 years, so I was fairly familiar with the bridge already. Of course, once you start building something in LEGO bricks, you suddenly realise how well you don’t know the original!

I easily located a healthy selection of photographs available online, but found I was missing many angles I needed for a complete picture. I’ve collated the photos of the High Level Bridge I took here for use as a modelling reference. My friend Jules also took a few from angles I’d missed, as he works on the quayside.

Finally, a very helpful resource was Google Maps’ 3D view in satellite mode. This proved quite invaluable in getting a feel for what surrounded the bridge on each side, although also skewed imagery leading me to design parts of the bridge which proved totally wrong once I’d discovered a photograph from a suitable angle!

Building the LEGO High Level Bridge

I started with the Newcastle quayside (northern) edge of the bridge, and tackled the large stone arch first as this was the bulkiest component. This was followed by one of 5 stone piers that support the 6 spans across the River Tyne, and the Newcastle and Gateshead river sides: once I’d cracked the design of this, a lot of work would flow easily.

The spans went through multiple iterations to get the right balance between aesthetics and strength. They were to span around 42 studs unsupported. Part of the appeal of building the High Level Bridge in LEGO bricks was that it had a lot of square-ish supports, lending itself well to the medium. I’m not satisfied with the final solution for the arches, so I may come back to these in time.

Testing the LEGO High Level Bridge spans

The current spans are sandwiched between two layers of Technic bricks, and whilst I sacrificed the height of the road deck under the tracks to give a more elongated feel (the real bridge spans are much longer as a proportion to the width of the supports), it still fits a LEGO City bus (luck, rather than design, as it turns out)!

A view through the arches in the bridge supports of the LEGO High Level Bridge, with LEGO sharks attacking Captain Jack Sparrow

The remaining landscape required some thinking, as the embankments at the edges needed a fairly steep gradient. The solution to this was to SNOT (Studs Not On Top) the embankments so they sit perpendicular to the rest of the landscaping work.

LEGO Head graffiti detail on High Level Bridge model

An urban scene gave me a chance to reuse a LEGO head graffiti  design, which featured both at the Parades de Coura Fan Weekend and in the Metrocentre LEGO store community showcase window at one point. It was nice to be able to reuse this LEGO head graffiti somewhere prominent, even if it isn’t quite prototypical (its location would be in a yard to the side of what is now the House of Tides restaurant).

I created graffiti of the LNUR logo as an experiment, and decided to make it prominent in the model with some artistic license (in real life, there is a building under the Gateshead side of the bridge, but it doesn’t have the same footprint or overall design).

A little animation

I included a simple animation of a construction worker drilling the road in my Locomotion Museum modules built last year, which proved probably the most popular thing on the display for the public. I decided to use another Circuit Cube I had been stockpiling and set about replicating something I had seen at Brick Feile in Dublin last June – a boat with a rocking motion on the waves, on some superb castle modules by Dutch builder Ruben Ras. This felt like a perfect addition to the River Tyne in the model, and came together quite smoothly thanks to videos and photos Ruben was able to provide of his solution.

Unveiling at Bricktastic 2024

View of the 3m spans of LEGO High Level Bridge at Bricktastic 2024 LEGO show

I began building in December 2023, and made fairly quick progress with the bridge supports and quayside, having plenty of tan bricks built up for many years “just in case”. My initial plan was to have the bridge ready for display at Discovery Brick Show, a show in Newcastle upon Tyne itself hosted by my home LEGO User Group, Brick Alley.

Breckland Bricks BR Class 40 on LEGO High Level Bridge at Bricktastic 2024

I was building at such a rate that I convinced myself it could be ready for Bricktastic 2024 at the end of February. I then stupidly told Shane this, and was so obligated to finish it. With quite a few late nights and early mornings, the bridge landscape was ready two weeks before Bricktastic (a necessity dictated by a very hectic work schedule)!

Time to think of an equally expensive idea for Shane…