Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Harringworth, Northamptonshire

The 82 brick arches of the railway viaduct near Harringworth are one of the most staggering sights of England’s railway architecture. Completed in 1879 for the Midland Railway, this extraordinary structure stretches 1,275 yards, taking the railway 60 feet above the Welland Valley.

It’s imposing, this vast viaduct, but hardly beautiful. In her Shell Guide to Northamptonshire, Juliet Smith tells us how to look at it: ‘It is best seen in dull weather or at dusk, when the ugly materials used by its Victorian builders, an indiscriminate mixture of blue and red brick, cannot detract from the effect of the classical proportions of arch and pillar’. The artfulness of the proportions is enhanced by making every ninth pier (marked with a pilaster) slightly wider than the rest, setting up a rhythm that reduces the monotony.

Proportions are all very well, but what’s really impressive is the way the viaduct takes us on a mental journey back in time. To stumble across this structure is to be transported to the world of the Victorians, and to come face to face with their engineering flair, their determination, their ruthless ability to get big things done. All their major engineering projects – bridges, tunnels, sewers, and the rest – take the breath away with their sheer size and nerve. And we’re still benefiting from many of them today, 130 years on.

Perhaps something like this caught the imagination of the local parishioners, for in Harringworth's parish church the long kneelers in front of the altar rails depict the arches of the viaduct in colourful embroidery. An Intercity 125 train passes along the track, a streak of gold, red, white, and blue. Here at the altar, the depiction of the arches is rather more brightly colourful than they actually are, but the train reminds us that Victorian engineering is still a real presence in our world.

Thanks to Peter Ashley of Unmitigated England for showing me this place.


Thud said...

The sheer mass is in itself beautiful.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes - the tiny dots in the distance are cattle: that gives one an idea of the bulk of the thing.

Peter Ashley said...

I'd forgotten that Juliet Smith had fallen into the brick trap. The viaduct was originally constructed in 100% blue brick, and was subsequently patched in red. During the penny-pinching British Railways days one suspects.

Helen Cherry said...

Peter Ashley is wrong on this. The Viaduct was originally red brick but was repaired using stronger blue engineering bricks

I came upon your post when I was trying to find the purpose of the little red house that sits below it.. you can see some of my posts in my series on Harringworth Viaduct ( not quite finished yet)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Helen: Thank you so much for your comment and the interesting links. I'm glad the rail engineer's article sorts out the sequence of construction, with red brick first.

Your photographs of the viaduct are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

THE VIADUCT was built of red brick which was porous and crumbled. It started crumbling 20 years after being completed. In 1980's it was repaired and refaced in Staffordshire blue bricks which are extremely hard engineering bricks Want to know more there is a Festival of Archaeology being held in Harringworth on Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th July, with guided walks of the historic village, Landscape and on the Sunday only the historic viaduct. Tickets £5, free exhibition in the Village Hall and free parking. Sandwiches cake and cream