Having squeezed yourself onto a space the size of a beer mat into the 12-carriage train at Brighton Station, the 07.36 departs for London Bridge, allegedly the busiest and craziest weekday train across the nation. I say 07.36 with “tongue-in-cheek”, as these days it might not leave at all, but that aside.
The train finally rumbles out of Brighton, past Preston Park, and suddenly breaks out into open countryside, through the South Downs on its trail northwards. You pull into Haywards Heath, more be-suited financiers cram in and you have already caught a cold from your next-door passenger.
The carriage sardines all around you look down, check mobiles for emails, text friends who are struggling through similar journeys, try and read the first edition papers, work on a PowerPoint presentation, snooze, stand or shout into a phone “Yes, I’m 15 minutes out of Brighton, should be in the office at 8.50!”
Only a few people would have noticed before the carriage is plunged into darkness as the train enters the Balcombe Tunnel (one of seven on the line), the view just beforehand. There is a slight climb across open fields, and then into level woodland, then only the observant passenger would see the trees start to disappear away and below further and further down, until it appears that you are travelling through the air until 25 seconds later, the trees start ascending again and you are back in woodland just before you enter the tunnel.
Passengers on the 07.36 and many more thousands will, that Monday, have crossed one of the marvels of Victorian engineering and architecture. It is impossible to appreciate from “up top” what the average passenger has just travelled across, as there is nothing to see except a glorious view down the Ouse Valley… who cares? It is only when you are underneath the arches that you truly appreciate the immensity of the victorian-built Ouse Valley Viaduct, more often referred to as the Balcombe Viaduct.
The viaduct is not the longest in Britain, the most picturesque, the tallest, the oldest nor the most complicated architecturally, but that is what makes it so amazing. It is a wonderful combination of being “nearly” all of the above. A great all-rounder. “Probably the most elegant viaduct in Britain,” (Victorian source unknown). It is the simplicity of its repetitive arches and piers which makes it so appealing, with hardly a building in sight.
News anchor Jon Snow was brought up at nearby Ardingly College, which lies about four miles away. He says eloquently about the viaduct: “My earliest and dearest horizon that defined where my world ended and world beyond began.
“For years Balcombe Viaduct was beyond the point that either my large-wheeled perambulator or my small legs could ever reach… I grew up in the headmaster’s house at Ardingly College deep in the Sussex Weald. The nursery was divided into two and a window cut into the wall that looked over the viaduct. In that battle over rooms, I knew I had to have the one with the viaduct.
“I have taken my children to Balcombe Viaduct on a number of occasions. There is no visitor centre, no ice cream van, no tourists. Often ramblers bypass us over the crest at Ryelands Farm and cry, ‘wow’, the size and beauty of the architecture taking people completely by surprise.”
Due to the difficult terrain and relatively sparse population between Croydon and Brighton, the line by-passed several towns and villages on the London-Brighton road, including Reigate and Crawley.
Even so, it required substantial earthworks, notably through the North Downs at Merstham, with one of the largest cuttings in Britain; seven tunnels (Merstham, Balcombe, Haywards Heath, Clayton and Patcham initially, then Quarry and Redhill which were constructed later); and several embankments.
It was to avoid steep gradients or detours that the 1,475ft (450m) long, nearly 100ft (29m) high Ouse Valley Viaduct was built near Balcombe and it still carries 110 packed trains a day.
The structure used 11 million bricks (the equivalent of one-and-a-half bricks for every person in London) which were all carried up the Ouse River by barges from the Netherlands (although some were local, which can still be seen with the difference in colour and aging), at a cost of £38,500 (£3.5m today) to build the vast construction. The viaduct was designed by engineer of the line John Urpeth Rastrick in association with the architect of the London to Brighton railway, David Mocatta.
At each end of the viaduct is an ornamental Italianate square open tower using Caen stone from Northern France. The rest of the brickwork is faced with stone from Heddon Quarries near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
During the 1890s, extensive brickwork repairs were undertaken using engineering bricks and mortar cement which were stronger than the original fabric of the viaduct. No doubt the intention was to make the structure more robust but it had the opposite effect, and further failures had to be strengthened.
Between March 1996 and September 1999, the Grade II listed viaduct was repaired and restored by Railtrack with part funding from the Railway Heritage Trust, English Heritage and West Sussex County Council. The scheme cost £6.5m, of which £1.2m was spent just on scaffolding.
In 2010, railway architect Lloyd Jefferson, of the University of Bath, presented a paper evaluating the structure and its aesthetics.
From a purely architectural and scientific perspective Jefferson says: “The repetition of the arches and piers, both their shape and size, gives good order to the structure. Both the piercing of the piers and the shape of the parapets resemble the shape of the arched apertures between piers, obtaining an aspect of visual continuity within the bridge. The edges of the viaduct and its parapets run straight and parallel to the railway tracks. These ordered parameters leave an aesthetically pleasing and balanced appearance.
“The major refinement of the structure is the piercing of the piers, to allow light to pass through and relieve a potential opaque visual barrier. The piers are also tapered both longitudinally and transversely, meaning they are thicker at the base than at the top. This method was used by the Greeks and prevents the optical illusion that the top of a parallel-edged pier looks wider than its base, therefore looking top heavy and illogical.”
So next time you return on the 18.15 from London Victoria, pass Wandsworth Common, get dragged through the never-changing and banal vista of over-priced terraced houses, crowding into the carriage at Thornton Heath, Croydon (more people), Purley and then Redhill, through Gatwick into Balcombe Tunnel, wait one more minute and peer over the edge.
The view is truly amazing stretching down the Ouse Valley towards Ardingly, but to truly understand the structure in context, get in the car, drive back up to Haywards Heath, follow the Balcombe Road onto Borde Hill Lane, turn the corner and see for yourself.
Oh, and tell us what is your “Sussex gem”.
V is for viaduct
A viaduct is a long elevated roadway usually consisting of a series of short spans supported on arches, piers, or columns. Technically Balcombe is not a viaduct as it crosses over the River Ouse, whereas a true viaduct crosses a “land gap” or gorge. Really it is a bridge or “ponte”, but modern terminology accepts the design, railway association and width of the Ouse makes it a “viaduct”. It is interesting to note that “viaduct” is not a Roman word, it is a modern slant of “aquaduct”, with “via” just meaning road.
The architect who created this masterpiece through the Sussex Weald was not Charles Barry, Thomas Cubitt or Alfred Waterhouse. He was railwayman John Urpeth Rastrick (26 January 1780 – 1 November 1856), one of the first English steam locomotive builders. The Northumbrian started life simply as an apprentice at an iron works in Shropshire.
By 1831 he started working on numerous railway projects, in 1835 joining John Rennie the Younger to obtain parliamentary approval for the London and Brighton Railway. He then became consultant engineer, overseeing the railway’s construction over difficult terrain. He was involved with the design and construction of the Merstham, Balcombe, Clayton and Patcham tunnels and the Ouse Valley Viaduct along with David Mocatta (architect to the London and Brighton Railway).
It was his experience with locomotives that set him apart. With his partner he built Trevithick’s “Catch Me Who Can”, only the third steam locomotive to be built in the world. He built a cast iron bridge over the River Wye at Chepstow in 1816. He was also engineer to the Stratford and Morton Tramway, building three locomotives for export to America.Not a bad life.