Parliamentary permission to build the 40-mile Leeds & Thirsk Railway was granted on 21st July 1845, with building work getting underway three months later. To reach Harrogate from the south, the line had to overcome a number of natural barriers, prompting the erection of three grand viaducts; the 3,761-yard Bramhope Tunnel also had to be driven. The going became easier further north as Ripon and Melmerby were reached, the railway thereafter bearing eastwards to enter Thirsk Town Station.
Opening came in sections, with mineral traffic first travelling between Ripon and Thirsk on 5th January 1848. Such were the construction difficulties with Bramhope Tunnel that the through route was not operational for another 18 months.
By this time, with an eye on Teesside’s profitable traffic, the company was already expanding its horizons. In 1852, having changed its name to the Leeds Northern, trains starting polishing a direct line from Melmerby to Stockton, passing under George Hudson’s Great North of England Railway at Northallerton which it had previously joined via a connecting chord near Thirsk. A branch to Knaresborough was also opened.
Between Starbeck and Ripley, the line crossed the steep-sided valley of the River Nidd on a viaduct of seven segmental arches. Formerly carrying two tracks, this attractive structure - rather lost in trees - is now occupied by a Sustrans cycle path. Known as Bilton Viaduct, it was the major engineering feat on the L&T’s 6¼-mile Nidd Contract - one of six awarded by the company - which was fulfilled by contractor Messrs Faviell & Sons. Responsible for the design was Scottish engineer Thomas Grainger who was assisted by John Bourne.
The completed line cost about £36,000 per line and was inspected by Captain Wynne for the Board of Trade on 6th July 1849. Bilton Viaduct had already been passed fit prior to being loaded by its first commercial train on 1st September 1848. At that time, only a single line crossed it.
Each of the arches - 50 feet in span and 20 feet in rise - boasts vast ashlar voussoirs, with a projecting moulded band at impost level. Three of the arches span the river, lifting the track to a height of 93 feet. The piers sit on plinths, those in the Nidd being protected by modest cutwaters. About half way up, large stones project outwards from their inner faces, these having been used to support the centring during construction.
The parapets are constructed in edge-tooled ashlar topped with flat copings. Below is a roll moulding and band at track level. At each end of the structure, the abutments are continued up to form pilasters featuring neatly-masoned quoins. Holding back the approach embankments are curved, triangular retaining walls.
Closure officially claimed the viaduct on 8th September 1969 following the withdrawal of goods services to Ripon. The station there had last welcomed a passenger train in March 1967. However restoration of the railway is included in North Yorkshire County Council’s long-term plans to improve transport links across the county. An earlier feasibility study had found the scheme to be viable.