The most impressive still-standing structure along the route of the Stanhope & Tyne is the Hownes Gill viaduct, which opened in 1858 and is now a Grade II listed structure. The viaduct was not built until twenty-four years after the line originally opened, by which point it had closed, been reopened, and at the time was under the ownership of the Stockton & Darlington Railway who had taken over the line under the guise of the Wear & Derwent Railway (or as is sometimes recorded, the Wear & Derwent Junction Railway).

Diagram of the 1834-58 inclined planes which crossed Hownes Gill before the viaduct was completed, from WW Tomlinson’s ‘The North Eastern Railway – it’s rise and development’ (1914). (The Wear & Derwent Railway, Amberley Publishing)

From the line’s opening in 1834 by the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad Company, crossing the 150 feet deep ravine of Hownes Gill was a bottleneck to traffic. A viaduct was not originally built, owing to expense, and complicated by soft ground at the bottom of the gill. Instead, two steep inclined planes with cradles to keep the wagons level were used. Worked by a single stationary steam engine at the bottom of the gill, the engine was assisted by the weight of a wagon descending one side of the gill to move the wagon on the opposite side upwards. The wagons were moved sideways on the cradles, meaning the wagons had to be turned through ninety degrees no fewer than four times, necessitating eight small turntables as part of the entire set up.

The Hownes Gill incline could move 120 to 140 wagons per twelve hours, but in 1844 the traffic on this part of the railway was already nearly equal to the capacity of the inclines so any increase in traffic would require improvements. Stockton & Darlington Railway engineer William Bouch suggested building a tension iron viaduct on the plan of the ‘Auckland & Weardale Occupation Iron Bridge’ on four stone pillars, but construction did not take place.

Oblique view of a goods train crossing Hownes Gill viaduct (Beamish Museum, The Wear & Derwent Railway, Amberley Publishing)

An early description of the Hownes Gill inclines comes from an unlikely source – ‘The Spas of England, and principal sea-bathing places’ by A.B. Granville:

Two sides, N.E. and S.W., nearly, of an immense chasm or ravine have been made available in the direct line of the railway to and from Stanhope, without bridge or embankment or viaduct, by means of a very ingenious arrangement in virtue of which the travelling trains are made to slide down one side, and mount the opposite one, through the operation of a stationary engine, of twenty- five horse power, placed on a platform quite at the bottom of the chasm. The latter is one hundred and eighty-eight perpendicular feet in depth, and its two sides stand at right angles with each other, having each an inclination of thirteen inches for every three feet, to an extent of one hundred and fifty yards.

The train of waggons, loaded with lead or lime, proceeding from Stanhope in the western district, or another train coming from Newcastle in the opposite direction with coals, having reached the termination of the level ground on either side of the ravine, is suddenly stopped, and the foremost waggon (for only one at a time can be operated upon) being unyoked, is turned upon a circle with its side towards the precipice, and slided forward and fixed into a moveable platform. The latter is in waiting on the very brink of the precipice, resting upon the rails with its four wheels, the two foremost of which being of larger diameter than the hind ones, cause the said platform to continue in a horizontal position while sliding down one incline, or ascending the other opposite, with its loaded waggon.

View over Hownes Gill viaduct (Beamish Museum)

To such as dread the sight of a deep abyss, this rapid manouevre, performed by a single man, aided by a little boy, who launch down its precipitous side a ponderous load, restrained only by an endless strap in its downward descent, is a spectacle highly exciting to the nerves.’

At some point, prior to 1853, the cradles had been dispensed with and wagons were instead run three at a time down and up the incline. This was, however, far from ideal as it often caused wagonloads, such as finished goods like rails from the ironworks, to fall off! By this point, the inclines at Hownes Gill were part of a network which reached from the iron works at Consett down to the ironstone mines of Cleveland, and the increasing demand from the ironworks at Consett for iron ore, and limestone from Stanhope, meant there was no other option but to take up the costly option of building a viaduct.

Colourised version of an original photograph taken shortly after the viaduct opened, showing a ‘Tory’ class locomotive of the Stockton & Darlington Railway on the viaduct.

Thomas Bouch is perhaps better known for his Tay Bridge which disastrously failed in 1879 with many lives lost on a train that was crossing it, but his bridge at Hownes Gill stands to this day. Bouch’s plan was approved in 1856, and the first brick was laid in February 1857, construction taking one year and five months, and using just over two and a half million firebricks, as well as stone. Crossing the gill at a maximum height of 150 feet above the gill floor, the 730-foot-long structure comprised of twelve semi-circular, tall arches with buttresses to support them from new, and low iron railings on either side of the viaduct. The four central arches were also inverted below ground at the suggestion of Robert Stephenson to counter the issue of soft ground at the foot of the gill. As the original engineer of the line, Robert Stephenson’s involvement in the most impressive structure on its entire route, built some twenty-four years after the line opened, was appropriate. It was also to be one of the last of his countless contributions to railways, as he died a year after the viaduct was opened.

The viaduct opened for use on Friday 25 June 1858. The directors of the S&DR held a board meeting at the viaduct that day featuring the usual method of testing a new bridge – by placing a load as heavy as possible on it:

‘At half-past twelve a train of 72 laden waggons was passed slowly over the bridge without the slightest signs of shake or deflection being observable. Afterwards a locomotive, appropriately termed “The Leader,” repeated this experiment, and then the party, with numbers of workmen, passed and repassed along the entire length at a quick pace, and, ultimately, a heavily laden coach train, with a full complement, satisfactorily proved the perfection of the work, which, during its progress, has been unattended by any accident, and on its completion has been opened with complete success’ (Newcastle Courant, Friday 2 July 1858).

The remains of the Hownes Gill inclined plane with the 1858 viaduct behind. (The Wear & Derwent Railway, Amberley Publishing)

Sadly since then it has acquired a reputation for local suicides, and a red cross painted on one of the piers is locally believed to refer to one death caused by a fall from it – it is often remarked this was built into the viaduct at the time of construction as a memorial to someone killed building it, however this does not seem to be the case as the construction was, as above, reported as being ‘unattended by any accident’. The route to the viaduct takes a very slight deviation from the original alignment so the inclines could still work whilst construction took place, and a row of railway workers cottages on the Rowley side of the gill by the original alignment remained occupied for many years.

Although the trackwork up to Hownes Gill itself was limited to single owing to a narrow embankment and original bridge over the farm road to Knitsley, the line from Hownes Gill and Rowley was doubled about ten years after the viaduct was completed. There was a set of points on the Consett side of the gill, the two tracks being interlaced over the viaduct then spreading out on the Rowley side of the gill as properly separated lines. This lasted until 1914 when the line between Hownes Gill and Rowley was singled. The line over the viaduct, which by that point ran from Consett to Burnhill, closed on 1 May 1969 after the closure of the Saltersgate ammunition depot in March – the month and a half delay was owing to snow meaning British Railways wagons at Burnhill couldn’t be brought back! Today it is part of the Waskerley Way, which comprises part of Sustrans c2c cycle path, a popular spot for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

Rob Langham's book The Wear & Derwent Railway is available for purchase now.