THE SOLWAY VIADUCT - SOUTHERN END
One day in March, on our way to Whitehaven for a meeting, Liz Ayers and I made a slight detour to the southern coast of the Solway Firth near the small town of Bowness on Solway in order to further my quest for the artefacts of James Brunlees. For here is the site of Brunlees' most famous work, the mile-and-a-quarter-long Solway Viaduct.
The London and North Western Railway had quite a stranglehold on the railway at Carlisle, about which I've written at great length elsewhere. Rival companies had to go to great lengths to circumnavigate the stranglehold. Furness was one of the major sources of haematite, the ore from whch iron is extracted, and this ore was in great demand by the ironworks of central Scotland. Formerly it was shipped by sea but with the coming of the railway it was sent by rail along the Furness Line to Carlisle and thence northwards. By the early 1860s as much as 100,000 tons per annum was being sent by rail, but it was a frequent victim of the LNWR's notorious bottleneck at Carlisle.
As a consequence the proprietors of the Furness Line decided to take action to avoid Carlisle and find another way northwards, and this is where our hero enters the picture. He was charged with the difficult task of building a bridge across the Solway Firth.
Despite much opposition, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1864 authorising the construction of the railway line and the viaduct. 2890 tons of cast iron and 1807 tons of wrought iron were used in the viaduct, and I would love to know who sat down and weighed them. I'm half-expecting someone to have counted all the rivets too.
I'm not joking about that either. The construction of the Viaduc des Fades involved the use of 71,609 rivets, so clearly someone had nothing better to do, unless of course it was an accountant.
It took 3-and-a-half years to build and cost the enormous sum of £100,000 - a fortune in those days - and was opened to traffic on 13 September 1869. The first train across was a goods train, and we had to wait until 8th August 1870 for the first passenger train, although some insist that a passenger service was crossing the bridge from June 1870.
The passenger service was never very successful and declined rapidly to just one carriage at the front of an occasional goods train. By September 1917 even this was so lightly loaded that passenger service was suspended. It was reinstated in 1920, but not for long.
As you drive westwards along the southern shore of the Solway Firth from the village of Bowness on Solway, you encounter a significant hump in the road with a significant gate just before the rise. This can only mean one thing - a former railway bridge and most probably a former railway station.
A peek through the hedge in a southwards direction reveals indeed a railway-looking building and comparing it with an earlier photograph taken from the same position it corresponds in every respect with what was formerly the station building.
Just a reminder that the building and former track bed have been sold into private hands and so you should not enter the property without the permission of the owner. However they have historical or other significance and as with any other item of such significance photographing them from outside the boundary of the private property is quite permissible. You should as a matter of courtesy take great care to exclude the inhabitants and their possessions from the shot.
A photograph looking north from more-or-less the same position as the previous photograph, in the direction of the Solway Firth, gives a better appreciation of the track bed in the condition in which it finds itself today.
The parapet of the bridge does not inspire much confidence. It would surprise me if it was the original - I would have expected to have seen a brick parapet and indeed some of the other parapets on other bridges on this line are made of brick.
This is a view of the bridge from down on the track bed. It is quite easy to descend onto the track bed by virtue of a stile and gate across the other side of the road from the station house. There's enough room there to park a vehicle by the side of the road too.
But you can see precisely what I mean about the parapet of the bridge. It didn't look too solid from above at road level, and it's quite a drop down to here.
The passage underneath the bridge has been filled in, a fate that I notice had befallen many of the abandoned bridges near here. I was told that the purchasers of the old railway station complained about the north wind blowing relentlessly under the bridge and this was the reason for the infilling. I reckon that this was rather short-sighted. Had they built themselves a wall at the viaduct side of the bridge they would have had a magnificent garage-workshop, the superstructure of which would be maintained at the public expense. Well, I would anyway.
There is quite a good view from down on the track bed. You can see westwards down the Solway Firth and eventually out towards the Irish Sea
You can also appreciate the major difficulty facing the directors of what became the Solway Junction Railway and Brunlees, the company's engineer, in their attempt to bridge the Solway Firth. This was no light undertaking as the Firth is a major obstacle to any crossing. There had been a ford, known as "Creighton's" here that had been in use for centuries but even that was treacherous.
You can see just how wet the weather had been, simply by looking at the ground. But Liz and I were far more interested in looking at the stonework that marked out the limits of the trackbed and, presumably, railway property on the foreshore of the Solway Firth.
This was my first encounter with the work of James Brunlees and the first thing to be said about his work was that the quality of the masonry was quite impressive.
There's another view westwards along the Solway Firth from here, but it isn't really the view that is interesting, it's the gorse bushes.
It was towards the end of March when we were taking these photographs and I have to say that I was glad that it wasn't midsummer, simply on account of the vegetation. The path to Brunlees' viaduct was a struggle through the gorse and brambles as it was. A few months from here and it would have been almost impassible.
The railway that Brunlees built goes out into the Solway Firth on an artificial embankment or pier that is 440 yards long and known locally as the "Pitchin". I imagine that it would have been made from any waste material that he could find.
It's quite an impressive structure, even more so when one considers that it has not seen a train, and hence has probably seen no maintenance, since the 1920s.
But although parts of this railway might have been considered to be rickety, the piers certainly were not and I have to say that I was quite impressed with the quality of the masonry.
I'm not too sure of the nature of the rock here although at a guess I would say limestone - it certainly is the predominant rock here in the locality. As they are only sea defences rather than masonry blocks for building, they are but rough-carved but nevertheless it is quite impressive.
This is the western side of the pier - that which is exposed to the prevailing winds and currents coming up the estuary (the flow of the river when not influenced by tidal forces is well out in the estuary)
Although the mortar in between the blocks has long since been washed away (I've since heard it said that the technique of dry-stone walling may well have been used), the blocks are still there and this after almost 90 years of complete neglect. This is something of a tribute to its builder.
And this is it. Brunlees' Solway Viaduct. I don't know what you might have been expecting, but these few cast-iron columns and bracing stays are more-or-less all that remains of it today.
The viaduct itself was 1950 yards long. In his evidence before the Committee of Enquiry into the Tay Bridge Disaster at question 15498 Brunlees gives the length as "nearly a mile and a quarter". The deck, consisting of girders 2'6" (78cms) high, was 34' (10 metres) above the Firth and was carried on a total of 193 piers spaced at 30' intervals. Each pier consisted of columns, of which Brunlees says (at question 15603) and each column consisted of a number cast-iron cylinders bolted together. Altogether, almost 4000 cylinders were used.
The piers of the viaduct disturbed the sediment flow in the Firth to such an extent that nearby Port Carlisle silted up. This small harbour and the connecting railway to Carlisle were both abandoned as a consequence.
The headroom was such that I'm not quite sure though what kind of traffic would have been using Port Carlisle. 34' isn't a great deal to let a sailing ship pass underneath. It did however enable the viaduct to be constructed without scaffolding. The piles to support the columns were driven into the bed of the Firth at low tide. and the deck was built up from a series of 5 barges that were pulled into position by the Clyde steamer Arabian
Brunlees gave evidence to the Tay Bridge Enquiry, question 15514 in fact, that he considered that the effects of the wind "ought to have been taken into account in the calculations" of the stresses to be withstood by the Tay Bridge. Under cross-examination by Bidder, the barrister representing Sir Thomas Bouch, he was obliged to admit at question 15522 that he had not taken the question of wind resistance into the calculations of the stresses to be withstood by his own bridges, including the Solway Viaduct. His reasons for not doing so is that the low height of the Solway Viaduct together with the shallow height of the girders would not present much of an obstacle to the passage up the Firth of a storm.
In defence of Sir Thomas Bouch, the designer of the Tay Bridge, it has to be said in all fairness that Major-General Hutchinson, the Board of Trade Inspector of Bridges gave evidence to the Tay Bridge Enquiry at question 16011 that "it has never been to (his) knowledge customary hither to take wind pressure into account in calculating the parts of bridges of this description" - referring to the Tay Bridge.
Brunlees' opinions can be best described as being influenced by hindsight, and it is this kind of evidence, underlined by the fact that none of his bridges were designed with wind resistance in mind, that made his evidence before the tribunal so unsatisfactory - even more so when one considers that he was summoned as an expert witness in the art of building cast-iron bridges across estuaries.
In the distance you can see the pier on the north bank of the Solway. That is in Scotland. This also extended out some distance into the Firth although not as far. We noted that it seemed to be in a much better condition than the southern pier where we were, and so I resolved to wander over there at a suitable opportunity to find out why.
If you look closely at the tops of the cast-iron columns here in the photo you will see that the lugs that hold the bracing ties have been cast into the design. There was quite a lot said about that practice during the enquiry into the Tay Bridge Disaster, and all of it was negative.
On the north bank of the Solway is the town of Annan and it was over in that direction that the railway went. It didn't in fact go to Annan (although a spur was later made to connect with Annan, or more precisely the Glasgow and South Western Railway that passed through the town) but bypassed the town and went to join the Caledonian main line at Kirtlebridge. However provision was made for a station to serve Annan at a locality called Shawhill.
One thing you notice almost immediately is the difference in style between vernacular Scottish houses and those of England. English vernacular houses are almost exclusively two-storey while those of Scotland are usually one-and-a-half storeys, with substantial windows in dormers in the roof.
The usual fashion of constructing cast-iron columns would be to cast them in sections that would be easier to handle than one complete height. The complete height would be made by bolting the sections together.
The faces of the flanges would be turned on a lathe so that they would be perfectly flat. If there are any imperfections on the face of a flange, then multiply those imperfections over the total height and the column would be some way out of the perpendicular. And if the columns were not absolutely vertical, the forces pressing down would not be evenly distributed. Weight would be transmitted obliquely through the column and so some parts would bear more weight than others, and hence be more likely to break.
Even more importantly, if the columns were tightened up with their surfaces uneven, friction caused by the wind or by loads would eventually grind away these imperfections and the bolts would then be slack. This would cause a considerable flexing of the columns and was another issue that affected the Tay Bridge.
The sections would have male spigots on one end and female recesses on the other end. During assembly, the male spigot of one section would then fit into the female recess on the section above it, and then the sections would be bolted together to make the full height of the column. The idea of the spigots and recesses is to stop the sections sliding on the faces and pivoting on the bolts when the column comes under strain. This was specified for the columns on the first Tay Bridge but the foundry casting the columns, hopelessly behind schedule with their work, omitted this time-comsuming process in many of the sections.
The correct way to cast a column is in the vertical - i.e. with the column standing upright. There are several good reasons for this.
i.... This way avoids what are called "cold shuts" - where the iron that is flowed around the horizontal core of a mould has cooled before it completes the circle. The cooling produces a skin on the surface and prevents the iron from fusing properly.
ii... It also avoids "stepping", which occurs where the upper half of the mould in a horizontal cast has not been properly mated with the lower half and is thus offset.
iii.. If cast iron has not been sufficiently puddled it contains impurities, or "slag". The slag and also air bubbles in the molten iron will float to the top. In vertical casting, the practice was to allow an extra few centimetres in height so that the bubbles and the impurities woiuld rise into the oversize which would then be turned off on a lathe. In horizontal casting, the air bubbles and impurities would be in the uppermost side of the object as it is being cast and so the uppermost side would inevitably be thinner and weaker than the rest. This could be a fatal weakness, especially if a column is not perpendicular. In such an event, if the forces were passing obliquely through a part of the column that was thin and weak, then sooner or later the column would collapse.
Of course, vertical casting and the subsequent turning off on a lathe is time-consuming and labour-intensive. It goes without saying that in the original Tay Bridge, all of the columns were horizontally-cast. The impurities were chipped out from the sides and the holes created and any air bubble cavities were filled in with a mixture of beeswax, fiddlers' resin, iron filings and lamp black, the infamous Beaumontague, or "Beaumont Egg" as it was known in the foundry vernacular.
It is however easier to set the core in the mould when casting horizontally, so there is more of a chance that the walls of any column would be of equal thickness. However it does take time to set the core correctly, and on the Tay Bridge, the core was set by eye and in the absence of bolts to hold it down (bolting the core down also took time) the core had a tendency to rise, making the walls of the Tay Bridge columns all kinds of different and irregular thicknesses.
Due to the weathering processes here, it isn't possible to say anything about the thickness of the column walls. But this column is certainly broken.
Brunlees, in his evidence before the Tay Bridge enquiry, was proud to state that his columns had not been filled with concrete. Those of the Tay Bridge had been so filled, and the expansion of the concrete on drying had caused some of the columns to split. Now I don't know about you, but to me this looks suspiciously like Victorian concrete in here.
Concrete was used extensively by the Romans in building. They fully understood its properties and used different compounds for different purposes. The construction of the Pantheon was a magnificent achievement. Concrete was forgotten with the decline of the Roman Empire and only rediscovered by people such as John Smeaton in the 1750s.
Just looking at this photo here there seems to be a great deal of Victorian concrete lying around the end of the pier.
So what was the purpose of putting concrete inside a cast iron column? According to Brunlees who gave evidence on this point, it provides extra weight to keep the bridge in situ and also provides extra strength.
It should also be mentioned that it provides a rigidity inside the columns. With the columns consisting of cylinders bolted together, then should the bolts work loose there might be a tendency for the cylinders of a column to slide out of alignment due to the action of the wind. A solid concrete core would prevent this.
Yet another reason is to prevent the formation of condensation on the inside of the cylinder, which might cause the cylinders to corrode and weaken.
There is however a downside to the use of concrete in such circumstances, in that it expands as it sets. And when this expansion occurs in a sealed column, the expansion has nowhere to go and so it bursts the cylinder. The way to resolve this problem is to pour the concrete into the column in stages, allowing each stage to set thoroughly before the next load is poured in. Any expansion can then go upwards and it is only the final load that is sealed in before expansion has taken place. If the final load is small, the expansion will be insignificant.
But not on the Tay Bridge. The use of concrete was in its infancy and its properties were not fully understood. In any case the builders were running hopelessly behind schedule. They mixed the concrete on a barge in the Tay, hoisted it up and poured it in, bucket by bucket. Each column took "at least three days to fill", according to the contractor.
Despite his self-assurance before the Committee of Enquiry into the Tay Bridge Disaster, James Brunlees suffered the agony of his viaduct coming to grief not once, but twice. In 1875 the severe winter caused condensation inside the columns which then froze. 33 of the columns suffered cracks. In his evidence before the Tay Bridge Enquiry at question 15604 he stated that those columns that were under the rails he replaced but those that were simply "rakers" i.e. columns of which the task was to brace the structure to withstand the effects of the wind, he banded with hoops and screwed the hoops closed.
How Brunlees cured the problem of condensation was to drill a small hole in each column just "above low water" - and this astonished me too - these holes would be letting salt water into the columns at high water. I was sure he must have meant "high water" but it's there in black and white at question 15613 - that would let out the condensation.
Frost damage was bad enough, but a worse disaster befell the Solway Viaduct in January 1881, just 9 months after Brunlees' appearance as an expert witness at the Tay Bridge Enquiry. And had there been a train on the viaduct at the time of the disaster then the loss of life would have been just as complete as the loss of life on the Tay Bridge.
What happened was that the severe winter in January 1881 caused the Solway to ice up, and the effects of the winds and tides caused icebergs to break away. The tide and current carried them into the bridge at a speed in the range of 10-15 mph. Some of these icebergs were 6 feet thick and the force of the collision damaged 37 of the girders and 45 of the 193 rows of columns. 350 yards of the bridge was carried away. "Ohhhh cruel and wicked fate", what?.
It took 12 months to secure the viaduct and about 3 years for it to be fully restored, but things were never the same again. There was a good deal of suspicion about the state of the viaduct. While nothing was ever admitted publicly, just before the outbreak of World War I the Caledonian Railway, which had taken over operation of the line across the viaduct in 1895, withdrew the standard 4-4-0 engines that worked the line and replaced them with engines of a lighter weight even though naval rearmament and the threat of war was increasing the demand for iron ore by the foundries in Central Scotland.
The rigorous demands of rail traffic during World War I caused great damage to the railway infrastructure and a thorough inspection of the railway network was undertaken prior to the amalgamation of the railway companies in the early 1920s. What they saw on the Solway Viaduct in early 1921 so alarmed them that all traffic across the Solway came to an immediate standstill.
The amalgamations saw the London and North Western and the Caledonian grouped together within the LMS and not surprisingly, the bottleneck at Carlisle eased. The Solway Viaduct became surplus to requirements, no repairs were ever carried out, and it just sat there quietly decaying.
Well, not quite. The viaduct still continued to serve a purpose for some. The other side of the Solway Firth is Scotland and in the old days Scotland was "dry" on Sundays. This side of the Firth is in England, where the pubs were open on Sundays so thirsty Scotsmen looking for their Sunday tipple used to walk across the viaduct to the pubs in Bowness and then stagger back after "last orders".
Of course, in the dark and in the frequent storms that sweep up here, the return journey for a Scotsman, having refreshed himself in the manner that only Scotsmen seem to be able to achieve, would be perilous to say the least. It was said that on average, a Scotsman would fall into the Solway once every month and by 1934 I suppose that the Scotsman was becoming thoroughly fed up.
Apart from denying a thirsty Scotsman a well-earned dram, there was another threat to the future of the viaduct. There were complaints about the threat to navigation that it was posing. With a headroom of 34 feet, there wasn't very much in the way of large shipping that could pass underneath and whatever had headroom of less than 34 feet would certainly have a beam of much less than 30 feet - the width between the rows of columns.
Perhaps if Scottish sailors were trying to return to Annan by boat (there was talk at one time of building a harbour there to handle the export of coal from the Canonbie coalfield) after a well-earned dram at Bowness on a Sunday then the complaints might be justifiable.
These complaints effectively sealed the fate of the Solway Viaduct. In 1934 Arnott Young and Co bought the railway infrastructure and began to dismantle the line. And despite the poor state of the viaduct, it required the use of explosives to remove some of it.
Much of the scrap was melted down at foundries in Darlington and Motherwell, the latter of which is quite ironical considering that much of the haematite that passed over the viaduct in its operational days ended up in the foundries at Motherwell. It is however said that some of the scrap was exported to Japan and used to make armaments for the war against China. The track on the English side of the Solway was finally lifted on 15th May 1937.
I mentioned earlier that much of the masonry seemed to be in good condition, especially bearing in mind that rail traffic ceased in 1921 and it is unlikely that it has received any kind of attention since then. This photo shows the nose of the pier with the masonry still largely intact.
It seems that the masonry pier was capped with the concrete but this has not survived so well. The Romans knew all about the effects of seawater on concrete and they used a special aggregate for marine installations which was particularly effective. Victorian engineers had not recaptured the technique.
This particular part of the viaduct seems to have been roughed up considerably by storms. The masonry has been all churned about, the concrete has been significantly disturbed, and the cast iron columns have been broken up.
Cast iron is remarkably brittle and many foundry techniques (horizontal casting, the use of Beaumontague, "burning on" of parts where a casting has been defective) made it even more so. But the fact that all the columns here have broken off at a similar height indicates that this is probably due to storm damage. Had they been cut down with a blow torch during the dismantling, I would have expected them to have been cut down at ground level, given the price of scrap metal during the 1930s rearmament programmes.
In the two photographs above showing down inside the column, there's no evidence of any cutting down. But of course there will have been considerable weathering since the viaduct was dismantled in 1934 and any evidence will have long since been eroded.
I was quite interested in this object lying on the foreshore and I have no idea what it might be. It's very tempting to suggest that it might be part of the viaduct deck, although the chances of it lying around here since the 1930s, given the tides, currents and storms, are unlikely.
In any case the iron frame looks like it might be too weak to support a train. The Railway Inspectorate in the 1870s reckoned that a structure should be able to carry a load of one and a half tons per rolling foot and this structure doesn't look as if it would come anywhere close to that.
Another good reason for ruling out the possibility that this is part of the viaduct decking is that I would have expected there to be bolt holes where the chairs to support the rails would have been screwed into the surface. There clearly aren't any of those.
It would seem to be some kind of horizontal structure all the same, and it appears to be pivoted judging by this end-on view. I'm also intrigued to know why every fourth lath is longer than the next three. There's no sign of any screw or bolt hole to give significance to the extra length, such as to take the upright for a hand rail.
It's a reasonably safe assumption to make that it has been floated into this position by a current or tide. The seaweed on the surrounding lumps of concrete give an indication of how high the tide can rise.
For that reason, it's equally reasonable to suggest that it will be taken off by the next high tide or storm. Next time I'm over in this part of England I shall have to go back for a look.
This is the upstream side of the Solway Firth, and you can see how the action of the tides and currents has washed away much of the masonry work. Normally you would expect to see the major part of the scouring coming from the direction of the prevailing wind, but there is a reason for the upstream lee side of the pier to have been so badly affected.
In fact it is rather ironic that given Brunlees' posturing before the Committee of Enquiry into the Tay Bridge Disaster, his own viaduct was victim of a disaster that, had there been a train on the viaduct at the time, would have provoked a disaster equal to that which befell Sir Thomas Bouch.
So much for his stable structure!
Given the disaster that befell the Solway Viaduct in 1881, icing of the Firth seems to be an accepted phenomenon. It is therefore quite possible that ice floes floating downstream to the sea have collided with the pier and caused much of the damage to the masonry.
Neither is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the pier has been deliberately quarried for the dressed stone. This fate befell many abandoned works, and even Hadrian's Wall was still being quarried for stone in the 18th Century, by no less a person than the Duke of Cumberland.
I'm thoroughly intrigued by these two pieces of iron and I have absolutely no idea what they might be. I'm not sure if they might be part of the viaduct as I'm sure that the dismantlers would not have left them lying here. They seem to be quite easily removed.
The flanges on the ends look like the unit is supposed to swivel round something, and there are indications that something seems to have been welded to them at one time.
The viaduct seems to be a good place to come for flotsam and jetsam. I'll have to bear this in mind and arrange my next visits here for just after a really high tide.
I once saw some old photographs of the Solway Viaduct in action and there was a signal or telegraph pole (I can't remember now which) clearly shown in the shots. One of the things that I did was to go over to the position where it might have been and see if there are any remains.
Sure enough, here is a weathered and eroded stump exactly where I expected to find it. It's hardly round, but in the absence of any other remains in the vicinity, this is probably it.
So having duly paid homage to the southern end of the Solway Viaduct, my next task was to visit the northern end.
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