Memories from Gordon Biddle & Michael Pettigrew

A graphic depiction of the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway lines and our viaducts – specially commissioned by Eden Viaducts. By Sarah Harvey

The Northern Viaduct Trust – Beginnings

The Trust

In 1970 British Rail set up a separate Property Board to handle all its non-operational property, of which there was quite a lot, mostly emanating from the closures of the Beeching era in the early 1960s.

In the late 1980s the long-disused Smardale Gill Viaduct (not to be confused with Smardale Viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line) near Kirkby Stephen, on the former Eden Valley line from Darlington across the Pennines to the West Coast main line at Tebay, was discovered by the late Gavin Martin whilst on a family walking holiday. Gavin was a mechanical engineer and railway enthusiast living in Warwickshire. He was immediately taken by the impressive structure and its position in the landscape. After a probable conversation with the Ranger of Smardale Nature Reserve Gavin discovered that British Rail planned to blow up the viaduct at a cost of £200,000 leaving the debris in Scandal Beck. Although the viaduct was being used as a footpath it had become unsafe with stonework falling from the piers.

Determined to thwart British Rail’s plans Gavin made contact with Eden District Council’s Planning Department. The Chair of Planning at Eden District Council was Michael Sewell; he seemed surprised that Smardale Gill Viaduct was not listed as being of special historic or architectural interest. The Council was immediately supportive and quickly listed the viaduct as grade II*. British Rail was therefore obliged to put their plans for demolition to a public enquiry. Demolition was refused.

Gavin, Michael and a friend of Gavin, solicitor, Michael Pettigrew (our co-author) requested that British Rail give them the viaduct and the £200,000 proposed spend on demolition so that they could preserve the structure for the benefit of the public. With the assistance of the Railway Heritage Trust and the British Rail Property Board Gavin and the two Michaels formed a trust as a company limited by guarantee as well as a registered charity. The three were the inaugural trustees alongside Treasurer, Bill Willink, a Barclays Bank local Director.

In the Autumn of 1989 Smardale Gill Viaduct, having been put back to good repair by British Rail under the able supervision of Appleby civil engineer Charles Blackett-Ord, and its substantial endowment were transferred to the newly formed Northern Viaduct Trust.

Meetings of the Northern Viaduct Trust were usually held at the Kings Head in Kirkby Stephen. Michael Pettigrew would travel north by train to Oxenholme where Gordon Biddle (our co-author) would collect him and drive up to Kirkby Stephen. From time-to-time after meetings trust members would have a social function with our wives. These were jolly events.

Once the renovation of Smardale Gill Viaduct was completed, the Northern Viaduct Trust took over two more viaducts east of Kirkby Stephen. Podgill Viaduct was 155 yards long and 84 feet high on 11 arches, and Merrygill Viaduct was 100 yards long and 78 feet high on 9 arches. Both are listed Grade II and form part of a public footpath on the old track-bed. Fortunately, they did not require any major restoration and remain historic listed structures in Kirkby Stephen and a much loved track-bed walk.

After a few years, Michael Sewell’s health deteriorated and he had to give up the chairmanship, and Gordon Biddle was asked to take over, which he did for several years until his wife’s failing health meant that he had to relinquish several responsibilities. His place was taken by Mike Sunderland, a teacher from Kirkby Stephen.

The Line

The South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway was opened in 1861, its primary purpose being to convey the rich haematite iron ore from the Furness area of Cumbria to the iron and steel-works of Teeside, and coal from Durham collieries to the iron and steelworks of Barrow in Cumbria. From Tebay the route lay along the West Coast Main Line to Hincaster Junction, south of Oxenholme, thence along the branch line of 1876 to Arnside on the Furness Railway and so to and from Barrow-in-Furness. The South Durham line was taken over by the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1863 and later the same year was absorbed by the North Eastern Railway and finally British Rail. BR closed the Kirkby Stephen–Tebay section in 1952 and the remainder of the line in 1962.

Smardale Gill Viaduct was 184 yards long, comprising 14 segmental arches 94ft high. Designed by Sir Thomas Bouch, builder of the ill-fate first Tay Bridge, it required considerable work taking twelve months and using stone from the local sandstone quarry that supplied the original masonry. The viaduct is in the middle of Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Smardale Nature Reserve and is a fabulous walk in the Westmorland Dales’ countryside.


The Beeching Report

The report by Dr Richard Beeching, ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, was published on the 27 March 1963. It decided the fate of the 2363 stations and 5000 miles of track earmarked for closure. Prior to the report British railway system was losing £100 million a year. Through this report the Government was reshaping the British railway map to make national decisions for a nationalised industry.

Gordon Biddle was one of the co-founders of The National Railway Heritage Awards which marked its 40th anniversary in 2019. Unable to make the ceremony, members of the current committee visited him and presented him with the Restoration Rewarded by Robin Leleux on this history of the awards and published for the anniversary. This photo is of Gordon Biddle, right, receiving the book from NRHA Chairman, Robin Leleux.