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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: the 1830 railway viaduct

Jonathan Schofield loves one of Manchester’s few Grade 1 listed structures...and its stalactites

Written by . Published on March 4th 2014.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: the 1830 railway viaduct

Category - good, standard, ugly? Beyond good, bloody marvellous.

What, when and who?

This is the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) company’s 1830 viaduct over the River Irwell by George Stephenson – the self-taught and very handy Geordie. People may recall, that with his son Robert, he designed the famous Rocket loco. Choo, choo. However, it may have been a chap called Thomas Gooch, a pupil of Stephenson, who did the actual design of our viaduct. Then he got no credit whatsoever.

So you’ve gone for a bridge?

Yea, a bridge, or, more correctly, a viaduct, but a very special one – with the best stalactites in the city. It’s one of only fifteen Grade One listed structures in Manchester and was the last viaduct on the L&MR. As discussed with our Brick Man story ages ago (click here), it was this system and its quick profitability, that gave us the railway age and mania of the mid-nineteenth century. In which case you might say this viaduct is the spiritual daddy of all other railway viaducts in the world. 

The Viaduct Before It Was Surrounded By Later WorksThe Viaduct Before It Was Surrounded By Later Works

You could say that. But what can we see?

Two broad but sweet segmental arches (these are arches less than a full half-circle) leaping the river and made from big beefy squared off and smoothed sandstone blocks. At the edges the stone has weathered, softening the structure, making us aware of the years that have passed since construction: telling us, literally, that a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The design is efficient, smart, and because of that simple fitness for purpose, beautiful in how it looks and what it does. It’s cleverly slewed at an angle across the river as well. The towpath under the viaduct on the Salford side is eight feet wide as stipulated by the 14 May 1829 Act of Parliament which approved its construction. But some unintended decoration has been added since then.

The stalactites?

Oh yes. The bridge has bled. The mortar between the stones has leached creating a coruscating pattern of stalactites. These aren’t the huge ones you’d find deep under the White Peak, we’d need a bit longer than a few of our human decades for that, but they are some eight or nine inches long. And at the tip of each is a drop of water which when it falls leaves a microscopic residue behind; thus the stalactites grow. There’s something monumental about this under-arch coating of lime and stalactites, which seems appropriate.


Why appropriate?

During construction boats would ferry workers across the river. At close of work or at meal times everybody piled in. In April 1830 an overcrowded boat hit the coffer dam around where the central pier was being constructed. The boat sank and eleven workers drowned. In some respects the L&MR was cursed. On the opening day, Wednesday 15 September, Liverpool MP William Huskisson was run over by a train and died. He was a famous so we remember his name: now what were those eleven humble workers called? Who knows? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they say.

How come I’ve never seen this before?

Because it’s sandwiched between a later bridge to the south and an extension in iron to the north. The best way to get up close us is to cross into Salford over the weirdly truncated Prince’s Bridge. At the bypass turn right. Then take the path by the side of the recently restored Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal down to the river and turn right along the old tow path. First you get the iron 1869 viaduct extension with its cheerful and chubby support column, then our fella, then the viaduct of the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway from 1849.

Anything else?

You might want to nip back round to Water Street on the Manchester side as well and see how the viaduct enters the Museum of Science and Industry site which therefore includes the oldest passenger railway station in the world and the end point for the L&MR. On the river side here you should be able to spot an animal ramp. About 200 yards from where this hits Water Street there used to be an abbatoir. One way ticket for those beasts. Choo, choo, moo, chop, stew.

1830 elegance1830 elegance

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield or connect via Google+

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Jess MaloneFebruary 4th 2009.

Jesus, you've done it again. Well not Jesus as such as but Schofield. Love these pieces.

Mr StalactiteFebruary 4th 2009.

And after you've printed it off Mary, what then will you do with it pray? Wrap your quivering naked body in it and sigh, "oh the stalactites, the stalactites."

James MannFebruary 4th 2009.

Thanks for the history lesson, most informative. Have actually walked under this bridge several times and never know anything about it. Keep them coming.

VelocityFebruary 4th 2009.

There are hordes of stalactite-fanciers down there now! Well, OK, me and two old blokes. Any idea what's happening with the 'Middlewood Locks' btw? Presumably the planned flats for tw*ts development isn't happening any time soon. (A wild guess based on the demolition of the project office as I type...) They've spent years restoring the canal and creating the new basin and no-one can get to see it properly at the moment. A bit of turf (well, quite a lot of turf) and some benches and it'd be a lovely public green space, with stunning views of the city centre from the top end where it meets Oldfield Rd. You could even put your Brick Man there...

MaryFebruary 4th 2009.

Thank you so much! Love all local history! I will print this off! xxx

Dave RobinsonAugust 5th 2013.

Surprised I've never twigged about this bridge!

rinkydinkMarch 8th 2014.

Mites up, tites down

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