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The Northern Viaduct Trust was formed in 1989 to acquire, restore and maintain the spectacular Smardale Gill viaduct which, 90ft high on fourteen stone arches, crosses the dramatic valley of Scandal Beck a few miles west of Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria. It was built in 1861 by the Cumbrian engineer Sir Thomas Bouch as part of the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway, which crossed the Pennines to carry coke to the iron and steel furnaces in the Barrow area and West Cumberland. The line was closed in 1962, after steelmaking finished. For over twenty years the viaduct stood disused, deteriorating from lack of maintenance and exposure to the weather. When it was noticed that masonry had fallen from several of the piers British Rail decided to demolish it. Eden District Council promptly arranged for it to be listed, and at a subsequent public enquiry retention of the viaduct was upheld. The cost of demolition was estimated to be some £230,000, and British Rail offered to put this sum towards the cost of restoration if a charitable trust could be formed to raise the balance and accept ownership. Four people formed a trust, registered it with the Charities Commission, and set about raising funds by way of grants from a number of organizations, including local authorities, the Countryside Commission and English Heritage. The total cost came to some £350,000. Several piers had to be 'stitched' using over 100 stainless steel rods, masonry needed repair, a new waterproof deck was required, and handrails had to be erected along the low parapets before the structure could be reopened. The trackbed for several miles at each end of the viaduct already belonged to the Cumbria Wildlife Trust as a national nature reserve, and the viaduct was vital link between then two sections. In the Autumn of 1992 it was formally handed over to the trust by the late Lord Whitelaw, together with the nearby Drygill viaduct (actually a two-arch bridge), to become a permissive footpath. It is now listed Grade II*, and has won a National Railway Heritage Award.
The Trust then turned its attention to acquiring 1¼ miles of trackbed on the same line east of Kirkby Stephen between Stenkrith and Hartley, including two more listed viaducts which fortunately were in better condition than Smardale Gill, the object being to create a cycle route
and footpath which would connect with other paths in the locality. The trust was enlarged to eight trustees and further grants were sought to finance the work. British Rail agreed to give the trackbed to the trust, including the eleven-arch Podgill viaduct, three overbridges and several culverts. Podgill required some repairs and a new deck, but the biggest job was to provide access from the B6259 Nateby Road at Stenkrith, just outside the town. A steel arched bridge over the River Eden gorge was designed by a local consulting engineer, Charles Blacket-Ord, winning an environmental award. Named the Millennium Bridge, it was opened in 2002 after delays caused by the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
But at the Hartley end the path ended abruptly at Merrygill viaduct, the lowest of the three with nine arches. After the railway closed it had been sold by British Rail to the owners of the adjacent Hartley quarry, now the Cemex group, who after negotiations agreed to make over the viaduct to the trust for a token payment of £1. Yet more grants were obtained to carry out restoration, which included the creation of disabled access at both ends of the route. The entire work was finally completed in 2005 when it was officially opened by Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of English Heritage. Among the tasks undertaken was the restoration and conversion of two former platelayers' huts to form interpretation points displaying photographs and information panels about the history of the railway and the quarry. A second National Railway Heritage Award in 2006 is marked by plaques on the two viaducts.
The complete circular walk, known as the Viaduct Round, starts at the centre of Kirkby Stephen and incorporates local footpaths, totaling about four miles. The portion along the old railway over the viaducts is easily accessible to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. An easily graded level surface provides good access for visitors with all levels of mobility. The attraction of the route is not only its majestic viaducts but the splendid views of the Eden valley and the northern Pennines, particularly from Podgill where, in addition, steps have been provided at one end enabling the viaduct to be viewed from below, together with picnic tables. Furthermore, the trust is careful to maintain the route and its vegetation in such a way as to ensure that wildlife is protected, both flora and fauna.
The project has attracted widespread local and national interest, and provides a much-used and appreciated amenity for residents and visitors alike. Descriptive leaflets are available from local tourist offices, and the trust has published a detailed walking guide to all three viaducts.
The trust itself still comprises just eight trustees, with no general membership, relying on grants
and donations for its work. The trust has since been used as an example for enabling the restoration of several historic viaducts elsewhere, although other trusts all have some form of participation by public bodies. The Northern Viaduct Trust remains unique in being the only one comprised solely of private individuals.
For more information about the project please contact Mike Sunderland at firstname.lastname@example.org