A train line runs through it: the railway viaducts that are at the heart of the Frome Valley

November 29 2013
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It wasn’t always as straightforward to get from London to Wales by rail. Before the building of the viaducts that dominate our landscape today it was a circuitous journey.

Local historian Ian Haddrell takes a look at the iconic structures that symbolise our area.

 

It wasn’t always as straightforward to get from London to Wales by rail.

Before the building of the viaducts that dominate our landscape today it was a circuitous journey.

The original route of the Great Western Railway (GWR) between London and South Wales, after the opening of Brunel’s Chepstow Railway Bridge in 1852, left the Bristol-bound Great Western Main Line at Swindon, proceeding via Stroud, Gloucester and Chepstow before rejoining the line as we know it today at Severn Tunnel Junction. This gave rise to the nickname ‘Great Way Round’.

In 1886, the opening of the Severn Tunnel brought the opportunity of a more direct route to South Wales, and trains from Swindon to Newport and beyond were routed via Bristol and the Severn Tunnel. But this route leaves the one we know today at Wootton Bassett near Swindon rejoining it close to Patchway station.

The last major part of the Great Western Railway to be built at the turn of the 20th century runs through the Frome Valley.

 It provided a direct route from London to South Wales and was established in 1903 with the building of what came to be known as the Badminton Line. This involved the construction of about 33 miles of new track between Wootton Bassett and Patchway, including two tunnels at Alderton and Sodbury four viaducts and seven new stations including ones at Coalpit Heath and Winterbourne. Work started in January 1897 on the eastern section of the line.

The final section (No.5) of the work, a distance of just over 5 miles from Coalpit Heath station to the junction with the existing railway near Patchway, involved considerable work in cuttings as well as several embankments and viaducts. The viaducts were regarded as a priority, for it was necessary to move an estimated 675,000 cu yards of excavated material from the previous section over the first viaduct as it was required as formation for two of the substantial embankments.

Above:The newly completed bridge for the Great Western Railway’s ‘Badminton Line’, constructed between 1897 and 1903, spans a somewhat quieter Badminton Road in 1902 compared to today’s busy thoroughfare.

Top of page: An express train crossing the eleven-arch Winterbourne viaduct, sometimes known as Huckford viaduct, in June 1958. Damson’s bridge in the foreground.

 

 

To assist in the construction of the viaducts a wooden trestle was erected on either side of the work on which a travelling gantry crane was placed so that it could run to transport material from one end to the other. Other details were conventional, with concrete bases to the brickwork piers after which timber staging was added and onto which the brick arches could be formed. An additional brickworks was established at Stoke Gifford, capable of producing 250,000 bricks a week.

Changes were made to the viaduct proposals at Coalpit Heath as work progressed, for at approximately 25 miles an embankment and three-arch bridge were substituted for the eight-arch viaduct originally intended. This was due to the various underground coal workings in the area giving rise to fears that the ground surface would be too unstable to take the weight of the supporting piers.