This is a story that started back in the early Noughties and culminated in what is probably one of the proudest moments of my life. I had no interest whatsoever in railways until one day I happened across an old viaduct, set amongst dense trees alongside the main road south-west of Slapewath in North Yorkshire. My first visit was very short as I was out mountain biking with my friend Craig who doesn’t appreciate long stops. It was a warm June day and all I remember is glimpsing stone arches above a stream. “Next time”, I said to myself, “I’ll walk over and have a good look at that.”
Months went by. But walking past it on my way to Guisborough one day, I had some time and examined the whole structure. I took photos on my old phone, turned off the road, down through the bushes and up to one of its piers. Then it happened. I climbed up the eastern end and onto the deck. There I saw trees growing over the handrails and roots displacing its stonework. I found myself consumed by an incredible sense of injustice.
Two of Richard's original pictures...
...taken on his old camera phone.
I’d never given a moment’s thought to my local history or the railway and ironstone mining heritage thereabouts. But it surrounded me and played such an important part in the industrial revolution. I walked the viaduct’s length, not understanding why trees had been allowed to grow on top of it; why such a mysterious structure was in such a state. I came back down at the western end and, placing a hand on the first pier, said to myself “we’ve got to find a way to keep you.”
From that day until December 2011, preserving this beautiful, once vitally important but now neglected piece of industrial heritage was never off my mind. Never. Every email, every hour spent poring over dusty books in the library, squinting at old OS maps, typing and re-typing keywords into search engines, then spending hours sifting through the results and the websites beyond ‘til my eyes refused to focus anymore. The anxiety about whether I would be too late - would I go back one day and find it demolished? The mesmerising wealth of information on the ironstone industry and the railways that once serviced it - all now long gone from the landscape. The excitement of receiving replies from people who shared a common interest and using the information within to enhance both my personal knowledge and my application to get the viaduct listed. And the email I eventually received from Peter Rowe of Tees Archaeology, informing me that I’d been successful: that was the best feeling of all. Ever.
This is how I achieved it.
History of the Cleveland Railway
The Cleveland Railway in north-east England ran from Normanby near Middlesbrough, via Guisborough through the Eston Hills, to Loftus in East Cleveland. It carried minerals from numerous iron ore mines along its route to the River Tees for shipment to Tyneside and elsewhere. The line was an offshoot of the West Hartlepool Harbour and Railway on the north bank of the Tees, to which it had a cross-river connection via a jetty at Normanby. It was built as a freight line and provided no passenger services during its brief existence as an independently owned railway.
The route was progressed in a number of stages, bypassing the centre of Guisborough, and opened in November 1861. Its construction was repeatedly held up by disputes with its main rival, the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which unsuccessfully attempted by every means at its disposal to maintain its rail monopoly south of the Tees. However, the Cleveland Railway remained independent only until 1865 when the company and its rivals were bought out by the North Eastern Railway.
|An 1894 map showing the various lines at Slapewath, with the viaduct labelled to the left of Slapewath Junction.
The new management linked the line with an existing coastal route via Saltburn, running north of the Eston Hills, and closed the line west of Guisborough in 1873 after only 12 years of service. The NER also constructed four passenger stations at the eastern end of the line in the 1870s. These were closed between 1958-1964, along with the section of line from Guisborough to Brotton, but the easternmost part is still in use today for mineral traffic.
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Why did I want it listed?
I started off determined to preserve Slapewath Viaduct purely as a piece of history, one that very few people left alive have ever heard about, let alone seen. Most people who travelled over it as passengers on trains are over 60. To have clear memories of 1960 you’d have to be born by 1950.
Every time I mentioned it to someone, they didn’t have a clue what I was jabbering on about which I found the most infuriating part. To me, I’d found a beautiful historical relic and wanted everyone not only to know about it but also to see it. People - including my girlfriend at the time - just smiled, said “great” and then gently changed the subject. It felt like it was just me and my viaduct against a world filled with indifference - neither my friends nor ‘the powers that be’ seemed to care about it at all.
Why didn’t the Cleveland Way go over it? Why was it in such a state? Why wasn’t it easily accessible to the public? The only people who used it were abseilers and the occasional walker who saw the public footpath sign at nearby Fancy Cottage and took the chance. Even the cycle path from Guisborough came to an abrupt end just before Spawood Junction and diverted riders onto a cycle path alongside the A171 which didn’t seem to make sense or be very safe. Why? I started asking questions and searching the internet.
The first organisation I contacted was the Northern Viaduct Trust. Just a general enquiry about what I had to do regarding the process of preservation. Mike Sunderland was absolutely brilliant and not only replied with a comprehensive checklist of what I should do next, but also a description of how they had preserved all of their structures near Kirkby Stephen. The insight from that one email was enough to fire me, not only in the right direction but also exactly what to do along the way. Check out the NVT’s website for some truly stunning viaducts.
From there I set up a Facebook page, Friends of Slapewath Viaduct (requires Facebook account), which I used to post photos and generate discussions. Friends joined, some gave me information but generally it was to focus my thoughts on the job in hand. Emails to my local conservation officer, Graeme Bickerdike at Forgotten Relics, Sustrans, English Heritage and the like, led to other people giving me additional, valuable information. Ownership, date of construction, date of closure among other issues were discussed and, in the majority of cases, resolved.
|The viaduct is not visible on aerial photography but can be located by the line of lighter coloured trees in the circle.
Photo: GoogleEarth/The Geoinformation Group
Research turned up an incredible history of how the railways spread from Middlesbrough all the way over to the mines in East Cleveland. Finding out that Guisborough once had two competing railways, using two different routes with one crossing the other behind what is now the town’s sorting office, was at times difficult to comprehend. The when, why and hows took a long time to sink in. It’s too long to recount here but the battle between the Cleveland and the Middlesbrough & Guisborough railway companies during the mid 19th century are both fascinating and, sadly, little known about. Well worth researching though if you live within 10 miles of Guisborough!
The most interesting research turned up the structure of the Cleveland Railway in the vicinity of Slapewath and Spawood mine. The realignment of the A171 in the late 20th century had obliterated the old road; the bridge to Skelton pit was demolished before the Second World War and the road bridge over the lines actually in Slapewath was buried and now forms part of the Cleveland Way adjacent to the shale quarries on the north side of the A171. The cat’s eyes in the path are all that remain to remind walkers of its use as the main road between Guisborough and Whitby.
The process started by downloaded forms from English Heritage’s website. They are easy to fill out. If you’ve done your research and know all there is to know about the building or structure, fill in the basics in legible handwriting, print the additional information out and attach. Write a full and accurate description of it and as many valid reasons why it should be preserved. Saying it looks nice or the place won’t be the same without it probably won’t work.
My argument was that of all the railway viaducts in East Cleveland, Slapewath is the only surviving one of stone construction and was built between 1858-62, long before the Whitby Redcar & Middlesbrough Union Railway viaducts between Loftus and Whitby. Kilton Viaduct was buried under mine spoil around the turn of the century after subsidence, whilst those at Staithes, Sandsend, East Row, Newholm Beck and Upgang were sold for scrap in 1958-1960. The nearest stone viaduct would have been Thorpe Thewles but, guess what, it was blown up in 1980. The only one left is Saltburn Viaduct which is brick and still operational.
I also included a land registry search, current OS map with grid reference and an old map taken from one of the many mapping websites. Obviously the location of the viaduct was highlighted together with the relevant junctions. An aerial view from Google Earth also showed its position but the viaduct is obscured by trees. All good for reference though.
The following text formed part of my application.