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Call for help in restoration of iconic Smardale Gill Viaduct

Smardale Gill Viaduct by Nick Brischuk

Everyone loves the iconic Grade II* listed Smardale Gill Viaduct. It is a powerful awe-inspiring construction in beautiful countryside just west of Kirkby Stephen in the Upper Eden Valley in South Cumbria and has been the destination for many walkers for years.

Owned by the Northern Viaduct Trust, it was saved from destruction and the public was invited to use its foothpath to enjoy it and the stunning wildlife reserve surrounding it. It was, with great regret, that the Trust had to shut its property last year, due to important maintenance work. However, the Trust has received a great deal of support for the closure of the viaduct locally as everyone wants to see the viaduct survive another 150 years.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve remains open with an option to bypass the viaduct so that walkers can still enjoy the views of the magnificent Victorian viaduct from the ground. Other walks in the area remain unaffected.

The viaduct is so much a part of the local area that it is hard to remember, sometimes, the important role it has played in Cumbria.

This beautiful viaduct was designed in 1861 by the Cumbrian engineer Sir Thomas Bouch and constructed of locally quarried stone to form 14 arches of 30 feet span, is over 90 feet over the beck below and has a total length of 553 feet. It was part of the working railway line of the now defunct South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway. The line’s primary function was to carry coke across the Pennines to the iron and steel furnaces in the Barrow area and West Cumberland. So when steelmaking finished, the line was closed in 1962.

For over twenty years this fabulous piece of railway history stood disused, deteriorating from lack of maintenance and exposure to the weather. Northern Viaduct Trust, a charity registered with the Charities Commission, was formed in 1989 to buy and save the viaduct.

The trackbed for several miles at each end of the viaduct already belonged to Cumbria Wildlife Trust as a national nature reserve (recently named the best nature reserve in Cumbria with around 400 species of plants) and, apart from being an historic monument, the viaduct forms a dramatic link between the two sections of the reserve.

The Trust raised funds and did a huge amount of repair work to restore some glory back to the viaduct including adding 100 steel rods to retain the stability of the structure, repairing masonry, adding a waterproof deck to protect the structure. The Trust also added handrails so it could invite the public onto the privately owned viaduct to enjoy its magnitude.

The viaduct has undergone regular maintenance over the years but is now in need of a more extensive programme of repair in order to ensure that Smardale Gill Viaduct is preserved for the future.

Prior to being shut last year, the viaduct had an initial structural report and the immediate work now required involves:

  • Up-grading the handrails to meet legal requirements
  • A comprehensive survey of the viaduct to identify areas that need restoration
  • The restoration of all damaged stonework areas showing defects and deterioration
  • The restoration of the pathway drainage, concrete deck and waterproofing across the top of the viaduct
  • Without this work the viaduct is at risk and unsafe hence it being closed to public access.

Northern Viaduct Trust really does want to keep access to the viaduct open to the public but it is just impossible in its dangerous current state. Apart from multiple structural issues, the Trust has been told of existing near misses with dogs chasing balls to the edge of the current railings and of the potential risk of children getting close to slipping through the rails. This is something that cannot be ignored.

The Trust has greatly appreciated support and understanding locally. However, since closing the footpath in 2019, there have been many reports of trespassing and also physical damage done to the viaduct and its infrastructure. Most recently vandals have damaged and removed wooden fences and have also cut the more secure fastenings to the heras panels with wire cutters and removed the heras to gain access. These are clearly deliberate criminal acts.

The path across the top of the viaduct is not a public right of way. It is private land. However, it is important to stress that the Trust has no intention of keeping walkers out for ever – the exclusion is necessary in order to get the works done so walkers can be safe.

Northern Viaduct Trust asks that everyone continues to be patient and to be understanding and to help the Trust by keeping an eye out and report unlawful behaviour to the police. It goes without saying that the cost of repairing the damage that is being done to the fencing is reducing the funds for restoration and is delaying the restoration timelines.

The Trust has four trustees who do not get paid. Its sole purpose is to maintain its viaducts. It also has no income as public access is free.

Northern Viaduct Trust is looking for public support to help it in its work. All donations will be very gratefully received and will accelerate the full opening of Smardale Gill Viaduct. Donations can be made via our website www.edenviaducts.org.uk

The essential programme of works will take a bit of time as it is expensive and requires planning permission. The Trust aims to restore the handrails by the end of 2020 so that the permissive pathway across the top of the viaduct can open again until the next phase of works. A new website has been published with a new fundraising page at www.edenviaducts.org.uk.

Neil Cleeveley, Chair of Northern Viaduct Trust said: “We hated having to shut the viaduct but were very grateful for the understanding and sympathy received locally. I hope everyone will continue to bear with us while we upgrade the railings to the required standards. We want to get the viaduct open again as soon as possible. We are currently waiting for our proposed solution to receive Listed Building consent. As a small charity with no regular income, (none of the Trustees receives any money for the role) we need to find the money to supplement our own limited funds for the project. We have applied for several grants and we hope to have some good news to share soon.

“We also need to find the funds to pay for a detailed structural survey of Smardale Gill viaduct, which we fully expect will identify some major restoration works. If we are to preserve this historic landmark, which is an iconic image of the Upper Eden, we will need to raise vastly more money than we have so far – I think we’ll be looking at several hundred thousand, if not more. We will obviously be looking at some of the big heritage funders, but I think we’ll also need to demonstrate public support, which is why we’ve launched our new fundraising effort.”

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