Saving Bennerley Viaduct, a rare historic gem

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 September 2019

Bennerley sunset Photo: Steve Adams

Bennerley sunset Photo: Steve Adams

as caption

Peter Seddon casts an eye on Derbyshire’s iron giant – Bennerley Viaduct

Guided walks at Bennerley ViaductGuided walks at Bennerley Viaduct

As random facts go here's one that only the knowing few might be aware of. There are only two surviving wrought-iron viaducts in England. One is Meldon Viaduct in Devon and the other - considered by aficionados the 'best' and certainly the longest - is in Derbyshire…and to be strictly fair half in Nottinghamshire too.

Bennerley Viaduct is one of those monumental survivals of industrial heritage that routinely attracts the epithet 'forgotten relic'. Yet there are moves afoot to render that stark label obsolete. Certainly that is the long-cherished aim of the passionate heritage group 'The Friends of Bennerley Viaduct'.

After years of tireless campaigning and sheer hard graft by the owners Railway Paths Limited and the Friends of Bennerley Viaduct - liaising with funding agencies, jumping through innumerable administrative hoops, clearing brambles, giving talks, staging exhibitions, overcoming setbacks, you name it they've done it - there is at last a positive indication that this important but long-redundant railway landmark dubbed the 'Iron Giant' will be saved for posterity and once more serve a positive role in the wider community long into the future.

Cue the puzzled collective cry - but where is it? Because for anyone outside the immediate orbit of Ilkeston and Cotmanhay, this Grade II* listed monument is rather a hidden gem.

An annotated plan of the projects elements and connectionsAn annotated plan of the projects elements and connections

Its entry in the Historic England register reveals the basics: 'Bennerley Viaduct is a late-nineteenth century wrought-iron railway viaduct of historic architectural interest that spans the Erewash valley between Ilkeston in Derbyshire and Awsworth in Nottinghamshire. It is an outstanding survival of the mature phase of the development of the railway network in England, demonstrating the confidence of Victorian railway engineers in seeking solutions to specific engineering challenges such as that posed by the terrain in the Erewash valley.'

Discussions around the morality of whether it 'should' be saved - given the not insubstantial costs - have thrown up some dissenters, but those on the majority 'yes' side appear to be close to winning through. Here is its story.

Like many historic industrial landmarks Bennerley Viaduct owes its genesis not to some romantic ideal but to pure commercial enterprise and practicality. In the mid-nineteenth century local businessmen set their sights on 4,000 acres of coal-producing land on the Duke of St Albans' Bestwood estate. That valuable resource had not been efficiently worked because of the prohibitive charges of the existing Midland Railway links with nearby industrial centres. If a profitable enterprise was to be created - with attendant employment opportunities - a new and more competitive line needed to be constructed to link the mining area efficiently to Derby and Nottingham. This necessitated somehow spanning the Erewash Valley and its flood plain, an unstable and difficult terrain already undermined by earlier workings.

The Great Northern Railway (Derbyshire and Staffordshire) Act of 1872 paved the way for a rival 40-mile network of main line and branches which ushered in a fresh era of competition and a new route between Nottingham and Derby linking further afield to Burton-on-Trent and Stafford. Because it served Derby's Friargate Station the Great Northern's Derbyshire Extension was popularly known as the Friargate Line.

The splendour of the 'Iron Giant' from the website of The Friends of Bennerley Viaduct - a powerful image to support its preservation Photo: Paul AtherleyThe splendour of the 'Iron Giant' from the website of The Friends of Bennerley Viaduct - a powerful image to support its preservation Photo: Paul Atherley

That Derby should be thus name-checked was by no means inappropriate, for the innovative viaduct which made the new line possible carried a 'Made in Derby' stamp on several counts.

Derby-based Eastwood, Swingler & Co won the contract to prefabricate the ironwork itself at its base on Osmaston Road. And the job of construction was given to another Derby firm Benton and Woodiwiss. Since viaducts were at that time more typically constructed of brick, or historically of wood, the latticed ironwork of Bennerley - bespoke-designed to be much lighter in order to reduce the loading on the difficult ground - attained an element of novelty and intrigue right from its inception.

The viaduct was built between May 1876 and November 1877. It was opened to commercial traffic in January 1878 and officially opened on 1st April later that year. One can imagine the huge visual impact this had on the landscape of Cotmanhay and surrounds for local residents. As such Bennerley Viaduct was 'legendary' from day one - it even makes a cameo appearance in the fictional works of Eastwood-born author D H Lawrence.

Right from the start the 'Iron Giant' created a degree of controversy. Some detractors labelled it a monstrosity, a scar on the landscape, a symbol of greed and exploitation. But voices of balanced reason won the day - Bennerley Viaduct was a valuable lifeline bringing new prospects and countless offshoot industries to the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire borderlands.

Bennerley Viaduct Photo: Steve ColeBennerley Viaduct Photo: Steve Cole

That said, the 'monstrosity' tag certainly rang true - for this new 'thing' crawling across the Erewash valley on its long spindly legs was assuredly a sight to behold, indeed a veritable monster of sorts, almost a being from another world. Add a belching locomotive speeding across it - with a pinch of Victorian imagination - and a vivid picture of the 'Iron Giant' emerges. The fire-breathing fiend is surely alive!

Certainly its statistics are impressive. The viaduct spans 484 yards (around a quarter of a mile) atop its 15 latticework piers, its track deck suspended 56 feet above the ground. Some half a million rivets hold it all together - like a full-scale Meccano masterpiece. No wonder it impressed itself on young minds - reminiscences abound to this day - there is something other-worldly about it.

Yet now it lies disused - silent and solitary in a stark open landscape long-cleared of the iron foundries and coal depots it once served. The scene today - especially in early evening - is eerily unreal, perhaps even spooky, and the immediate untamed landscape almost primordial in character. In dead of night one might expect a runaway 'ghost train' to hurtle to its sorry fate with one last piercing and forlorn whistle.

In fact the final passenger train crossed it in 1964 - victim of a changing industrial environment, expanding road freight and the Beeching line closures - and the viaduct's useful first life ended on 6th May 1968 when it was finally closed to freight traffic.

At that juncture the redundant viaduct became something of a burden to its then owners British Rail. Twice in the 1970s it was scheduled for demolition, perversely reprieved partly because of the onerous financial cost of pulling it down.

As such the 'Iron Giant' became a phantom of the past, and soon a hazardous playground for exploring youngsters - several tragedies occurred. Sundry examples of 'undesirable behaviour' also became a reported problem, the immediate vicinity considered almost a no-go area for respectable local residents.

But the dereliction also attracted a diverse wildlife and habitat - and therein lay the germ of new possibilities. Could regeneration for 'other uses' be a viable option? And in a rapidly-advancing world a new nostalgia for 'things past' began to emerge. Slowly and surely a genuine affection for Bennerley Viaduct was nurtured afresh.

A key milestone occurred as early as November 1974 when the structure was granted Grade II listed status as a monument of historic and national interest. A structural survey also revealed, very significantly, that Bennerley was remarkably well-preserved for its age - so relative to other projects the costs of saving it were not unduly prohibitive.

A significant ownership transfer occurred in 1998 when the British Rail Property Board handed custodianship to Railway Paths Limited as part of a portfolio which included 210 miles of disused railway routes and 695 structures. The aim was to accelerate the expansion of the National Cycle Network under the auspices of sister charity Sustrans. And now that cycling - along with walking and running - has enjoyed a huge upsurge in take-up, all the right threads appear to be coming together for Bennerley at just the right time… and in the right order.

In 2014 Sustrans received a grant of £40,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to aid the cause, and over the past few years the 'save Bennerley' campaign has been tirelessly promoted by the 'Friends of Bennerley Viaduct' group. In 2016 Ilkeston's Erewash Museum mounted an attention-grabbing exhibition.

The declared intention of both 'The Friends' and current owners Railway Paths Ltd is for Bennerley Viaduct to be reopened as a cycling and walking route which will attract new visitors and businesses to the locality and serve as both a recreational and educational facility.

Some key planning permission decisions have already been granted and others are imminent as we go to press. If all goes to plan a date towards the end of 2020 has been set for a landmark re-opening at a cost of over half a million pounds.

Should that come to fruition it will mark not 'journey's end' for the Bennerley Viaduct project, but a fresh new beginning in the structure's long and eventful life - a perfect illustration of how the heritage of the past can and should be conserved not as the sole preserve of nostalgia or sentimentality, but as a rejuvenating and accessible asset for the future.

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