Victoria Viaduct: One of Wearside's most magnificent and lesser-known landmarks

It is one of the finest feats of Victorian civil engineering in the North East and it’s right here on Wearside – between Washington and Penshaw, in case you hadn’t noticed it.

Monday, 16th November 2020, 12:14 pm

By now people reading this who have also used it will be in a small minority. Not everyone will have seen it. In fact quite a few people across the city of Sunderland won’t have even heard of it - which the good people of Fatfield are sometimes amused by.

This is the Victoria Viaduct.

Did you even know it was there?

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The Victoria Viaduct is as stunning today as it was almost two centuries ago.
The Victoria Viaduct is as stunning today as it was almost two centuries ago.

It’s quite likely too that the Chester Burn viaduct in Chester-le-Street is more familiar to Wearsiders; even though it’s in another town, is not as long or high, not as old and, we respectfully suggest, not as pleasing on the eye.

It’s hardly controversial either to suggest that this Wear crossing appeals to the artist a great deal more than the A19 Hylton Bridge, which qualifies as a viaduct too and is an invaluable asset to the area, but purely functional and unlikely to inspire much poetry.

There are two main reasons for the relative obscurity of the magnificent Victoria Viaduct. It hasn’t been used in decades and is virtually hidden.

Motorists don’t just stumble across it while out and about as they might do with other North East landmarks; although walkers on one of the more picturesque stretches of the River Wear might.

The Victoria Viaduct as drawn over a century ago. Note the three smaller arches at each end, which put there against the wishes of designer James Walker.

It really ought to be used as a sort of promotional badge, like Washington Old Hall, Penshaw Monument or St Peter’s Church. Yet it sits sad, wondrous and neglected in equal measure.

History, facts and figures

It is in a word, a whopper. The cold facts and figures are as follows. The viaduct was built as a railway bridge, completed in 1838 six years before the nearby Penshaw Monument.

It is 247 metres (810 feet) long, 41 metres (135 feet) high and 48 metres (156 feet) from foundation to parapet. It comprises four vast main arches, the largest of which has a span of 160 feet. Among Britain’s masonry railway viaducts, only an arch on the Ballochmyle viaduct near Kilmarnock is bigger.

The Victoria Viaduct is as stunning today as it was almost two centuries ago.

It was double-track with a walkway either side for passengers.

The viaduct was constructed almost entirely from Penshaw sandstone, the local quarry being handily placed. The exception to this was the quoins (corners) of the main arches, which were made from super-strong Aberdeen granite. Its foundations are below the riverbed.

At either end there are three smaller arches, making 10 in total. The designer, James Walker, originally produced drawings with six full arches. He was most miffed when this was modified to create the three smaller ones at each end instead, which today can hardly be seen through the trees.

The idea of an iron bridge was toyed with. But a stone arch design by Walker, an experienced Scottish civil engineer, was chosen. Walker actually specialised in lighthouses, but later worked on the Houses of Parliament. Work was supervised by Thomas Elliot Harrison, an engineer who lived in Whitburn.

Today the top of the viaduct is closed to the public. This picture was taken from the Washington end, with Penshaw Monument in the background.

The design is supposedly based on that of the Alcántara Bridge in Spain, built over the River Tagus on the orders of the Emperor Trajan in 106 AD.

Penshaw Monument is based on a Greek temple. As the great architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner commented: “Is there any other place where one can stand beneath a ‘Roman’ viaduct and see a ‘Greek’ temple near by?”

He had a point. Also in proximity is the Oddfellows Arms; which is another bonus, although for purely architectural reasons.

There was never any doubt whom the viaduct would be named after, although it was called the Victoria Bridge at first.

Work began on March 17, 1836. William IV died 15 months later and the crossing’s last stone was laid the same day as Queen Victoria’s coronation; June 28, 1838, although no train travelled over it until the following year.

None of the sucking up to Victoria would earn a knighthood for anyone involved with the project.

The total cost given, with remarkable precision, was £40,338 5s 10d, the equivalent of about £4.5 million in 2020. Interestingly the Northern Spire opened in 2018 at a cost of £117 million.

Not so grand opening

On it’s opening day in 1839, bigwigs from across the region gathered to see the viaduct in use for the first time. Unfortunately, the second train to ever use it was unable to regulate its speed and ran into the trailing carriage of the first.

Happily there were only minor injuries and, after 30 minutes delay, the trains proceeded to South Shields, carrying coal from a pit belonging to the much-detested Marquis of Londonderry.

Oh, Dr Beeching! - decline, the viaduct today and possible re-use

The main reason for building the viaduct was to transport minerals, coal in particular, and be part of a mainline between Newcastle and London. But passenger services began to use it in March 1840, offering travellers a beautiful River Wear view that remains much the same today.

But in 1961 the first chairman of the newly formed British Railways Board was announced by Harold Macmillan’s government; and what better appointment could there be than a physicist with no knowledge or expertise of railways whatsoever?

Dr Richard Beeching’s brutal cuts in Britain’s railway system remain controversial even today. Notoriously, he ended passenger services over the Victoria Viaduct – and just about everywhere else.

Then came the decline of coal. The viaduct was refurbished in 1989/90, but mothballed in 1991. It has never been used since. There have been sporadic proposals over the years that it could be used again to carry trains as part of a Metro extension. We shall see.

The Victoria Viaduct is protected by grade II* listed status, but remains mothballed and closed even to pedestrians. Its track has long gone and now it’s really just a magnificent relic that becomes more forgotten by the year.

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