December 18, 2009

Kielder viaduct - A North Tyne icon

By Donald Clegg and Clive Dalton

View of the Bakethin resevoir from the Kielder viaduct

Victorian engineers

This wonderful example of Victorian engineering fortunately survived two major threats - the closure of the Riccarton-Newcastle railway line, and the the flooding of the upper Tyne valley to form the Kielder resevoir.

The viaduct was designed by John Furness Tone to get the railway across the Deadwater burn at an angle, and to do this, the contractors William Hutchinson and Peter Nicholson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne used the 'skew arch' construction, where stone masons cut and dressed each individual stone to be laid along helical courses for the seven arches with the longest span of 12m. There are three piers in the water which were an added challenge.

The bridge plaque describes Nicholson as a 'pioneer geometrician who worked out how the stones should be cut. Imagine the time he would have put into the mathmatics of that, and how quickly it would be done today with 'Computer Assisted Drafting' (CAD). All the plans would be hand drawn and copies made by hand - no digital scanning or copying machines.

This construction was not unique to Kielder and was used on other bridges on both the North British and Wansbeck line. Examples were the bridge near Chollerton station for rail over the road the bridge for road and rail across the river Rede at Reedsmouth (completed in 1861), and the road bridge over the old line path near Scotsgap's old station. So the Kielder viaduct would not be the first structure on which the technique was used - but it's certainly the most spectacular on the line.

Words on plaque at Kielder viaduct
'In 1969 after being in use for 100 years this viaduct was preserved for the public by the Northumberland and Newcastle Society through the generosity of many donors. The viaduct was constructed in 1862 to carry the North Tyne railway and is a notable example of Victorian engineering. It is a rare and the finest surviving example of the skew arch form of construction. This required that each stone in the arches should be individually shaped in accordance with the method evolved by Peter Nicholson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a pioneer geometrician in this field'.

Time on the job
The job was started in 1858 and finished in 1862 - which was not bad going considering the technology of the time. The quarrying and carting the stone to the job with horse and cart would be a major job, and then all the dressing of the stone by the masons would follow that. Then without modern cranes and hoists, imagine the work in putting up the scaffolding and then getting the dressed stones up into the archways. Each stone would have been a two-man lift.

The viaduct was a joint project between the Border Counties Railway (BCR) and the North British Railway (NBR) which merged in 1860 into the NBR to extend the line up the North Tyne valley to Riccarton junction. The hoped-for bonanze of coal from Plashetts pit for Scottish mills never happened, and the Edinburgh-Newcastle route via Hexham never competed with the much faster route via Berwick on Tweed.

In 1923 the line and the all the bridges on it became the property of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and then to British Rail in 1948 before closure for passengers in 1956 and freight in 1958. The Bellingham Heritage Centre has a special display about the railway - see their website for information.

The history of the line is well explained by G.W.M. Sewell in his book "The North British Railway in Northumberland (1991), Merlin Books. ISBN 0-86303-613-9.

This is an outstanding book with some marvelous photos of stations, trains and people. It also includes detailed plans of all the railways and sidings at each station. It has been reprinted twice.

Because the Duke of Northumberland owned the shooting lodge near by and was a major land owner, he must have had enough influence to dictate the style of the bridge which ended up with what look like battlements along the parapet and imitation arrow slits.

Blacksmith's art
The Duke would be very pleased to see the works of art which have now fill the gaps in the battlement along the parapet.

These were made by blacksmiths in response to a competition.

Theme: bee and honeycomb

Note the 'Border Counties Railway (NBR), North British Railway (NBR) and the final owners the London and North Eastern Railway
( LNER)' - and the passing train.

A wonderful montage reflecting railway and river.

Fish, eels and reeds in the river.

Brambles ready for picking

Nice big salmon moving up stream to spawn.

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