The Northern Viaduct Trust was formed in 1989 to acquire, restore and maintain disused important railway viaducts in the North of England. The Trust's first project was at Smardale Gill, near Ravenstonedale, where restoration was completed in 1992 at a cost of nearly £400,000.
The Trust then spent several years planning its next project, applying for grants and negotiating purchase of the land from the British Railway Property Board. The Hartley-Stenkrith footpath project involved the acquisition of a one mile length of disused railway to the south east of Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria, including Podgill viaduct, a listed Grade 2 structure designed by the famous Cumbrian-born engineer, Thomas Bouch. Purchase was completed and works were ready to start by the year 2000.
In addition to the restoration of the eleven-arch Podgill viaduct, work was also necessary on several bridges and other structures along this section of old railway. Most important, however, was the construction of a new footbridge over the River Eden to provide access to the new walking route, from Stenkrith Park, adjacent to the B6259 Nateby Road at the southern fringe of Kirkby Stephen.
Designed by local engineer, Charles Blackett-Ord, construction of this spectacular Stenkrith Millennium Bridge over the Eden gorge, with its rapids and whirlpools, was delayed by the Cumbrian foot-and-mouth epidemic and was not completed until 2002. Podgill viaduct was restored and waterproofed, and a path provided along the track bed of the old railway from Stenkrith Park, with access for pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchairs, linking also with several existing rights of way.
The second stage, to complete a footpath link between Stenkrith and Hartley village, entailed the acquisition of a further half-mile of trackbed extending eastwards and including the nine-arch Merrygill Viaduct. This section had been in the ownership of RMC who operate the adjacent limestone quarry and limeworks. Restoration of this section and its opening to walkers and other users was completed in 2005 at a total cost of £50,000.
As completed, and now known as the Viaduct Round, a circular walk from the centre of Kirkby Stephen via Stenkrith and Hartley is about four miles and will take about two hours. The route along the former railway over the two viaducts is easily accessible to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. With easily graded level surface it allows good access for visitors of all levels of mobility. The attraction of the route is not just its majestic viaducts, but the path provides incomparable views of the Eden Valley and north Pennines and the banks of the former railway are managed to maximise nature conservation benefits. The project has restored a disused and derelict railway for the benefit of the local community and provides an attraction for visitors to the area.
The path will start in Stenkrith Park, which is managed by Kirkby Stephen Parish Town Council, with a new footbridge over the River Eden. From the bridge the visitor will have spectacular views of whirlpools and rapids below as the river passes through a rocky gorge which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its geological formations.
The total cost of the project is estimated at £250,000, including repairs to other structures along the path as well as Podgill Viaduct, the new footbridge and new fencing along the whole route.