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Great Northern Railway and The Bennerley Viaduct – by Brian Spencer

Great Northern Railway and The Bennerley Viaduct – by Brian Spencer

The first time I came across the Bennerley Viaduct was one foggy November day, a few years back. We were following the twists and turns of the Nottingham Canal along the Erewash Valley and decided to swap sides and cross the valley in order to reach the Erewash Canal on our way back to Ilkeston.  The word ‘Viaduct’ on the Ordnance Survey map seemed to offer a high level way, over the river and the branch linking the London to Sheffield lines via Derby and Nottingham, in order to join the Erewash Canal near the Bridge Inn at Cotmanhay.  Suddenly, out of the mist there appeared what can only be described as a piece of a giant’s Meccano modelling. This was the latticework of the Bennerley Viaduct, then but wonder of wonders, not now, a way across the Erewash Valley.  In order to reach a suitable valley crossing, we had to follow the remains of the Nottingham Canal tow-path all the way to Shipley Gate where a short length of boggy path took us across the valley and link up with the Erewash Canal tow-path.  

Since our abortive attempt to cross the viaduct, teams of dedicated volunteers have restored the viaduct’s track-bed, created access links to the canals at either end, making a delightful high level footpath, cycleway for all to enjoy. Sweeping curves of the access paths on either side of the valley, make it an easy way for disabled explorers to enjoy the delights of this one-time industrial valley where nature again holds say.

The viaduct and the ornate cast-iron bridge over Derby’s Friargate Bridge over the Ashbourne road, are the only links with a railway that appears to have been built with no thought to cost.  They and other bridges carried what was known as the Great Northern Railway.  The line was created in 1879 in order to join rail services both east and west, linking Grantham on the east coast main line, to Stafford in the west.  The line made a huge loop, going north, then west, away from Nottingham; very little is left of this section as housing is now built over much of its city-length, or some now enjoys a new life as a tram-track.  When the Great Northern reached the boggy width of the Erewash valley, it had to span two canals, the river and also the route of the Nottingham section of the Erewash Line from Nottingham to Sheffield.

Designed by the Richard Johnson, Civil Engineer to the Great Northern Railway, with Samuel Abbot acting as resident engineer.  Rather than build a conventional structure of building in bricks and stone, it was decided that the viaduct would be made from wrought iron.  This would create a latticework structure of girders, each spanning 76feet in order to support the locomotive deck. Each supporting upright would rise from low brick pillars capped with gritstone topping.  Running from Awsworth in the east to Ilkeston above the river’s western bank, it created a unique structure, one of the first metal railway bridges in the world.   Three additional skewed spars at the Ilkeston end carried the line over the Erewash Canal, then onwards by conventional tracks, through Ilkeston and onwards to Derby and Stafford.  Bennerley Viaduct was opened in 1877 and was in use until the Beeching ‘Axe’ dictated its closure.  Unusually for lines suffering closure, the Great Northern’s goods carrying trade was the first to be abandoned, on 7th September 1964.  Passenger services continued until they were also abandoned almost three years later on 4th September 1967.

During its lifetime, the Great Northern Railway carried both passengers and goods, mainly coal from mines throughout the region.  Scores of short branch lines snaked across the north Midlands, carrying coal to fuel Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  Life got a bit exciting during a zeppelin raid in the Great War when a flotilla of the inflated sausages attacked Nottingham.  Small bombs were dropped all around the marshalling yards near Awsworth, but no lasting damage was done.  One of the attackers ran out of fuel on its way back to Germany and drifted over to Norway where it went aground on rocks off a tiny island in the south-west of Norway.  Luckily no one was harmed either on the ground in the Nottinghamshire countryside, or members of the crew of the zeppelin.


With the closure of this two-star, listed build in need of protection, when Bennerley Viaduct finally closed in 1967, caring voices began to be raised, with ideas floating to and fro about what could be done.  

Several organisations stepped forward with ideas and early plans for the future.  The first was called Railway Paths Ltd, an organisation as the name suggests, dedicated to preserving paths and access surrounding rural lines.  Their idea was to use Bennerley Viaduct as a link between paths surrounding the Nottingham and Erewash Canals in between.  Unfortunately for them, railway bureaucracy came along in the shape of Sustrans, the national railway maintenance company who scotched any idea of a voluntary organisation taking over responsibility for the viaduct.  Fortunately the parlous state of the country’s economy unexpectedly came to the aid of those keen to save Bennerley Viaduct when Sustrans so to speak, threw in the towel, allowing voluntary organisations to take over and commence restoration work.


Another voluntary organisation, Friends of Bennerley Viaduct came forward, offering to work alongside Railway Paths Ltd.  Sustrans one must feel was only too pleased to be rid of this massive problem and willingly sold the viaduct at a peppercorn price.  As joint owners, the two sets of volunteers could then settle down to the real job of restoring this historic addition to the local heritage. Armed with a grant of £40,000 from the National Lottery Fund restoration work and the construction of access paths began at an amazing speed, and in a matter of months the tow-paths of Erewash and Nottingham Canals were linked, making opportunities’ for several walks, both long and short distanced, along the Erewash Valley.  One extra part of the work involved in restoring this early link with the rail network, was the construction of a winding path from the tow path to the viaduct’s walkway track bed, making it, and also both tow-paths, accessible to disabled users.

The finished viaduct was officially opened on Sunday 13 January 2022, when its potential was unexpectedly made clear.  The place was so crowded by everyone and their dogs that it was almost impossible to find anywhere to park.  Fortunately this was a ‘one off’ novelty and by the next weekend, although the novelty has not warn off, nor is it likely to do, access has become much easier.

There are car parks close by and safe roadside parking – we parked close by Ilkeston Football Club.  The  nearest pub is in Awsworth not far from the Awsworth/A6096 car park.


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