It’s an opportune time to be thinking about railway viaducts, those great monuments to rail travel. Other than the biggest stations, viaducts are perhaps the largest and most noticeable structures the railway industry has imposed on the landscape. As stations tend to be in towns, while viaducts are often found in remote countryside areas, their impact is arguably even greater.
Yet we have taken them to heart. “Spectacular” says Country Living of Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line. “Britain’s most beautiful landmarks” include Balcombe Viaduct over the Ouse Valley on the London-Brighton line, says The Telegraph. “Spectacular” (again) says Visit Cumbria of Smardale Gill Viaduct (now a footpath after the railway line it carried closed in the 1960s). Glenfinnan Viaduct is “beautiful” says (of all organisations) BT; it has also achieved international recognition through a starring role in the Harry Potter films, as the Hogwarts Express thunders over it. And so on.
So why is this an opportune time to be considering railway viaducts? Well, earlier this month HS2 Ltd, the company overseeing the construction of Britain’s second high-speed railway, unveiled its outline design for the Colne Valley Viaduct. This will carry HS2 over the lakes and woodland of Colne Valley Regional Park, to the north-west of London. HS2 has a design panel, charged with giving advice to ensure that the infrastructure of HS2 is beautiful as well as useful, and hopefully avoiding the missed opportunities of HS1, like the somewhat underwhelming Medway Bridge.
At 2.1 miles (3.4km) long, the Colne Valley Viaduct will be one of the longest in the UK, so getting it right is vital, especially in such a sensitive landscape area. Specialist bridge architecture practice Knight Architects has produced a very attractive outline design, with the viaduct’s shallow arches skipping over the lakes. There is a lightness of touch about the structure, with the areas between the arches open rather than infilled, and the ‘legs’ of the viaduct tapering inwards as the reach ground/water level. The outline design will now be handed to construction joint venture Align to be turned into a final design ready to be built for HS2’s first phase opening in 2026, all being well.
Not that this has at all impressed anti-HS2 campaigners. The plans for the viaduct are “just another puff piece” and it will still represent a significant piece of visual intrusion, they say.
‘Twas ever thus, though.
All those “beautiful” and “spectacular” viaducts I mentioned earlier? Reviled when built. Poet John Ruskin, a leading cultural commentator, had this to say when the Midland Railway built the Headstone Viaduct through Monsal Dale in the Peak District. “There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe… You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere.” Not a fan, then.
Long since closed to trains the Headstone Viaduct is now, of course, seen as an integral component of the picturesque Monsal Dale landscape, not a detraction from it. It was selected as one of the BBC’s Seven Man-Made Wonders in 2014.
It’s undoubtedly very attractive but it’s neither the highest, nor the longest railway viaduct in Britain. Although our mental image of a railway viaduct is probably a tall grey structure in the wild and untamed uplands of northern England or Scotland, what is generally reckoned as Britain’s longest viaduct is much further south, on the border of Northamptonshire and Rutland. Harringworth Viaduct, or Seaton Viaduct, or Welland Viaduct (it goes by all these), is 1.16km long and has 82 arches. It is made of brick, with red and blue bricks now mixed together in a slightly patchwork appearance, the result of repairs being made over time with different brick stock. It is certainly impressively long, receding almost impossibly far off into the distance when you stand beside it.
Although open to rail traffic, trains are relatively infrequent. The line it carries is primarily a freight route, and there are only a couple of passenger services over the viaduct each day, though the viaduct also forms part of an important diversionary route for the Midland Main Line. When the main line is closed for maintenance, the viaduct really comes into its own.
Other viaducts in Britain have a claim to be longer even than Harringworth Viaduct, notably in London. With properties butting right up next to them, they’re not so easily appreciated as other viaducts, but the elevated lines from Greenwich to London Bridge and Shoreditch to Dalston run on viaducts which stretch for several kilometres. However, they are made up of several shorter lengths of viaducts connected by bridges, rather than being continuous, so they don’t strictly qualify.
Britain’s tallest viaduct is Ballochmyle Viaduct on the railway between Glasgow and Carlisle. At least, Engineering Timelines says it ‘probably’ is and that’s good enough for me. The main span is 50m above the River Ayr below and the viaduct is still in regular use. Being constructed from stone blocks rather than the smaller bricks of Harringworth Viaduct, it perhaps more closely corresponds to what we think of as the archetypal railway viaduct, and it is an impressive sight indeed.
The two British railway lines most famous for their viaducts are probably the West Highland and Settle-Carlisle lines. The West Highland Line includes Glenfinnan Viaduct, mentioned earlier, and Loch-nan-Uamh Viaduct, in one of the piers of which a horse and cart remain interred to this day (more on this gruesome story here). The West Highland Line describes some fearsome curves as it makes its way north from Glasgow to Oban and Mallaig, and these are a deliberate attempt to avoid the expense that would have been incurred by the construction of additional viaducts.
Little such compunction appears to have applied when it came to the making of the Settle-Carlisle line, however. Built as an express railway, with its straight route often causing its stations to be located far distant from the communities they were supposed to serve, the line has some 21 or 22 viaducts (sources vary). The longest on the line is Ribblehead, a little over 400m long and with 24 arches. Smardale Viaduct is slightly taller, but shorter. As a collection, there are few more impressive pieces of railway landscape than the Settle-Carlisle line’s impassive grey viaducts, almost the only man-made structures in the vast wilds of the North Yorkshire countryside in which they stand. They remain perennially popular photographic subjects, especially when steam trains operate across them. They are one of the transport industry’s great aesthetic interventions in the appearance of the wider world.
The Settle-Carlisle line was a vast undertaking, hugely expensive in terms of both capital and human life. No-one knows how many navvies died building the line, but it was certainly in the hundreds. Its builder, the Midland Railway, was grouped into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923 along with the Midland’s rival, the London and North Western Railway. Both had routes between London and Scotland, and the fearsome gradients (the Settle to Carlisle section being the exemplar) and extra length of the Midland’s meant that the Settle-Carlisle line was always regarded as a somewhat unsatisfactory duplicate. It was nearly closed during the final years of British Rail but a successful campaign kept it open and it is safe for the foreseeable future despite the maintenance challenges it presents.
Back down south, Balcombe Viaduct over Sussex’s Ouse Valley on the Brighton Main Line might not be the tallest or the longest of Britain’s railway viaducts. It does, however, feature an unusual design which makes it an aesthetically appealing and frequently photographed structure. For a start, it has a balustrade running along the top on both sides, between two pairs of purely ornamental classical pavilions. The arches feature tall elliptical openings; these reduced the number of bricks needed (to a mere estimated 11 million, imported all the way from Holland) and provide an unusual photographic opportunity.
Apart from Glenfinnan Viaduct (1901), all these viaducts date from the 1800s, the great railway-building century. Later viaducts are much rarer, simply because so many fewer railways were built in the 20th and 21st Centuries. But occasionally, the opportunity arose to produce something as dramatic as 19th Century railway viaducts, though using a different visual language. For today’s final viaduct, let me take you to Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne. The opening of the Tyne & Wear Metro in the early 1980s necessitated the construction of a new viaduct over the River Ouseburn, just a little downstream from the existing railway viaduct. Designed by Ove Arup and Partners, it opened in 1982. Your appreciation of it will depend on your opinion of concrete, but I think it looks fabulous, and it provides a fascinating contrast with the 1830s railway viaduct it stands alongside.
How to find the viaducts
The Beauty of Transport map will show you the locations of Glenfinnan Viaduct (click here), Headstone Viaduct at Monsal Dale (click here), Harringworth Viaduct (click here), Ballochmyle Viaduct (click here), Ribblehead Viaduct (click here), Balcombe Viaduct (click here) and Byker Viaduct (click here)
Bibliography and Further Reading
DfT/HS2 press release on Colne Valley Viaduct, here
BBC News story on Colne Valley Viaduct, here
Peak District National Park webpage on the Monsal Trail, here
Historic England listing citation for Headstone Viaduct, here
Historic England listing citation for Harringworth Viaduct, here
Historic England listing citation for Ribblehead Viaduct, here
Historic England listing citation for Balcombe Viaduct, here
Historic Environment Scotland listing citation for Glenfinnan Viaduct, here
Historic Environment Scotland listing citation for Ballochmyle Viaduct, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above