Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Bennerley Viaduct

By Alan Green

The Bennerley Viaduct (photograph: David Hodginson)

After a 54 year moratorium, the public can once again cross the Erewash Valley over the magnificent Bennerley Viaduct. Only walkers and cyclists, as the tracks of the old Great Northern Railway (GNR) were lifted soon after the line closed in 1968. With contributions from numerous organisations, the Friends of Bennerley Viaduct and Railway Paths Limited, the viaduct owners, re-opened the Grade II* listed structure in early 2022. The official opening ceremony followed later in the summer. Bennerley Viaduct is one of only two remaining wrought-iron viaducts in the UK. Bennerley Viaduct is essentially unaltered since it was completed in 1878. The viaduct is 484 yards long, generally 60 feet above the ground comprising 19 spans to cross two canals, a river, a valley and a railway line. Coal is the reason the viaduct was built. Rail had taken over from canals as the optimum way to transport heavy goods by the late nineteenth century. The Midland Railway had virtually established a monopoly in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire area which frustrated local businessmen and colliery owners. They had to pay the prices demanded. The situation also frustrated the GNR who needed to transport coal from northern pits to their customers further south, and wished to make inroads into the Erewash coalfield markets. By the early 1870s relations between the two railway companies had reached a low point; even traffic sharing agreements were terminated. In response, the GNR built their own railway, the Derbyshire and Staffordshire extension. The route ran from Egginton Junction near Burton, through a new station at Derby Friargate, to north Nottingham and huge sidings in Colwick. The route passed the Bestwood Estate of the 10th Duke of St Albans, which had vast untapped coal reserves. The Duke was an influential parliamentarian and Parliamentary approval was granted in 1872.The route required navigating challenging terrain.The valley is a floodplain and there are many criss-crossing shafts from coal and ironstone workings. Bennerley Colliery was mining between 1855-1873. Meticulous records were not required in those days and there were fears that a viaduct constructed with traditional materials may be too heavy on unstable ground. Consequently, a wrought iron structure was designed by Richard Johnson the GNR Chief Civil Engineer and Samuel Abbot the resident engineer. As well as being lighter, wrought iron was flexible should there be any ground movement. The viaduct was assembled by Benton and Woodiwiss, a Derby construction company. The company had been involved in numerous projects building railways, embankments, and bridges. The cast iron base plates and the wrought iron piers and trusses were fabricated by Eastwood, Swingler & Co., another Derby-based company that played a large role in the country’s railways. After crossing the Erewash Canal and Midland Mainline on the west side, the viaduct is mounted on 15 brick and stone pier bases to span the valley, with a bridge to cross the Nottingham canal. The piers are sunk between 6 to 8 feet into the ground. On top of each pier base are 4 large cast iron base plates. Each pier has 12 columns that rest on the base plates to support the deck. The individual columns are hollow and made up of 4 sections riveted together. The 12 columns are connected by a series of horizontal and diagonal bracings and tensioned by cotter pins. There are over half a million rivets on the viaduct.The deck is mounted on three beams which run the length of the viaduct. The deck is made up of 526 ballast filled troughs to reduce the overall weight. The construction was completed in only eighteen months. The first train crossed the Viaduct in January 1878. For most of its life the line was profitable. As well coal, iron ore, beer and other heavy goods were regularly transported. Passenger services were introduced, although the GNR hadn’t envisaged as many stations in the original plan. As the route was announced, locals petitioned for a station. Kimberley was successful, gaining Kimberley East Station. Day trips to the seaside were possible and Skegness became the locals’ seaside resort. By the mid-1960s demand for coal was declining and road haulage was taking a larger share of business. The route over the viaduct was included in the 1963 ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, often called the Beeching Report. The government closed the line to passenger traffic in 1964. The last freight train passed over the viaduct on 6th May 1968. The track was soon lifted. For British Rail, the viaduct was an unusable liability and needed demolishing. The structure was awarded Grade II* listed status in 1974 which gained it some protection. British Rail applied to demolish it a year later, but Broxtowe and Erewash Borough councils refused following community objections. Before an appeal could be considered the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine set up a Public Inquiry in 1980. This gave time for opponents of demolition to develop plans to preserve the viaduct as a walking and cycling trail. Although little progress was made, the viaduct survived.When British Rail was privatised, ownership transferred to Railway Paths Limited (RPL). In 2015 a National Lottery Heritage project “Rediscovering Bennerley Viaduct” was launched to engage the community and assess the levels of support for re-purposing the viaduct. The support from the community was strong and the Friends of Bennerley Viaduct (FoBV) was formed. The campaigning continued and working with RPL, Bennerley Viaduct re-opened in January 2022. FoBV looks after the viaduct and the land beneath on a long-term lease. FoBV are developing a nature reserve under the length of the viaduct. Although there is a ramp on the Ilkeston (western) side, there are only steps on the Awsworth (eastern) side. However, a successful Levelling-Up bid for Kimberley includes provision for a new ramp and additional facilities. FoBV offers tours which are advertised on the website as well as private tours for interested groups, events, presentations, and education.

Alan Green: (Friends of Bennerley Viaduct, Office, Castledine House, 5 Heanor Road, Ilkeston, DE7 8DY)