Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Viaduct

After 173 years heavy train traffic still thunders across the Ouse viaduct. It's another triumph of Victorian engineering. It is Wolverton's most significant monument from the 19th century.

The viaduct is 660 feet in length and rises 57 feet above the river and comprises 6 arches, each with a 60 feet span. The course of the railway line took it along a bend in the river but on the advice of an experienced surveyor, Bryan Donkin, and in discussion with the Radcliffe Trust, the course of the river was straightened and the embankment extended over the old course of the river.

The shaded line represents the old course of the river and the dotted line shows the new, straighter course of the stream. One of the consequences of this was that Mead Mill, which is recorded in Domesday and had had a working life of 1,000 years, was taken out of commission. From 1838 only Wolverton Mill remained in service. Mead Mill was inhabited for a decade or so after this, but eventually the buildings were torn down and the site disappears from history.

The new railway line split some of the farms on the eastern side and compensation had to be agreed and bridges built over the line, so negotiations were quite lengthy. However, an agreement was signed on 4th February 1835 and work began after the Act of Parliament on 3rd july 1835. The work took three years and was one of the last sections to be completed in time for the eventual opening of the railway line in September 1838.

So for three years Wolverton had to deal with the experience of navvies. The term came from the canal building days of a generation earlier, when the labourers who dug the canals wer called navigators. This new army of labouring men were little different from their predecessors. they were a tough, hard working and rootless bunch of characters who were prone to splurging thier pay in the local fleshpots. Most of them were accommodated in shacks at Denbeigh Hall, but there were some wooden shacks at Wolverton and there is probably little doubt that these rowdies filled the inns of Stony Stratford on paydays.

One can reflect that these huge embankments were built entirely by hand and shovel. There were no mechanical diggers or earth movers at this end of the 19th century. Some of this activity was recorded by the artist J C Bourne who left us two images of the work. The first here shows a land slip on the Wolverton side where the soil gave way as the problems of building on the old river bed had been underestimated. Once the got below the level of sand and gravel and blue clay, they came to a clay level that simply would not hold. Mixing the clay with more resilient material did not work and eventually they solved the problem by building five foot trenches on either side and filling them with coarser material to prevent any further spread. Incidentally, the buildings on the left hand side are probably Mead Mill.

The second drawing shows the almost completed viaduct with some of the arch forms visible and some scaffolding still in place.

South of the river there were still more serious problems. the contractors brought in huge quantities of slag and shale to fill the embankment and one night the whole embankment spontaneously combusted, producing a phenomenal sight for the villagers. This was caused by the iron sulphate decomposing in the embankment.

The Wolverton embankment and viaduct, along with the Kilsby Tunnel proved to be the most difficult engineering projects for the new railway. They were therefore the last to be completed and until September 1838, when the line officially opened, passengers had to alight at Denbigh Hall and travel by coach to Rugby.

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