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The opening of Crumlin Viaduct

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:51 UK time, Tuesday, 31 May 2011

One of the most notable pieces of industrial architecture in Wales was, for many years, the famous Crumlin Viaduct. From the day that work began until the moment it was finally demolished in the 1960s, people flocked to Crumlin to see this wonder of the modern industrial age, the highest railway viaduct ever built in the United Kingdom.

Situated at Crumlin, some four or five miles to the west of Pontypool, the huge viaduct spanned the valley of the Ebbw River and was opened on Whit Monday, 1 June 1857.

By the middle years of the 19th century there was something of a 'coal rush' going on in Wales as entrepreneurs rushed to take advantage of the Welsh coal fields. A network of railways was built, most of them running from north to south, to take coal from the pit heads to the ports of Cardiff and Newport.

However, by the early 1850s it had become clear that there was a need for another railway line, this time running west to east, to join up the Taff Vale Railway in the west with the Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway in the east. The line was to be known as the Taff Vale Extension. Parliament gave its approval and work began.

One of the big problems for the railway engineers was how to cross the Ebbw Valley. Initially a stone bridge was suggested but the technical difficulties and the vicious nature of the winds up and down this narrow, steep sided valley were too great a risk. There was also the matter of cost. And so building a bridge or viaduct made out of wrought iron was considered the thing to do.

Thomas Kennard submitted a proposal that called for a viaduct of 10 iron trusses, supported by a number of high stone piers. The proposal was accepted and in the summer of 1853 work began. Foundations were bored into the valley floor and slowly but surely the iron trusses edged out over the valley.

The viaduct was 200 foot high and ran across the valley (across two valleys, in fact, the Ebbw and the smaller Kendon) for 1650 feet. Built by Kennard, construction took several years to complete. It was a difficult and dangerous process. Despite this, there was only one fatality during the whole construction process, when a girder slipped as it was being hoisted into position.M

All of the iron used in the viaduct was made at the nearby works of the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company and most of the labour came from the local area. Kennard even built himself a house - Crumlin Hall - and lived in it while the viaduct was being built. By the time the work was completed the whole project had cost £62,000, a not inconsiderable sum for those days but considerably cheaper than the cost of a stone bridge.

Finally, on 1 June 1857 opening day arrived. Speeches were made, the first train inched across the structure and upwards of 20,000 spectators came to watch the event. Cannons, set up on the hillside, fired off volley after volley of celebratory shots throughout the day, the noise of the explosions reverberating across the valley and town. It was a day of great celebration and the tiny Welsh community achieved instant immortality. Even the London papers sent reporters and artists to cover the event.

Crumlin Viaduct survived the closure of the Taff Vale Railway, even the amalgamation of the Great Western into British Rail in the years after the Second World War. But it could not survive Dr Beeching and his infamous cuts. By the early 1960s the line was barely used and the decision to close was made.

The last train rumbled over the viaduct in 1964 and, despite proposals to save the unique structure, it was decided that it was in too bad a state of disrepair. Demolition began in 1967.

Even then, however, fame would not leave the viaduct alone. As the demolition began, a film company arrived to shoot scenes for a film, called Arabesque. The stars were Sophie Loren and Gregory Peck . Nowadays the film, the stone abutments on either side of the valley and pictures of the viaduct on the Crumlin Mural in the centre of the town, are all that remain of this incredible piece of architecture.

Crossing Crumlin Viaduct must have been a wonderful experience but, like so much of our heritage, it has now long gone. The town of Crumlin can be proud, however, of the fact that it once boasted the highest railway viaduct in the country.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bare facts hardly give a true account of what it must have been like crossing that viaduct in a railway carriage. The whole thing must have shook and rattled - a bit like riding on a modern roller coaster, I'd guess. A Victorian boost for all the adrenalin junkies of the day!

  • Comment number 2.

    As a child I vaguely remember crossing the viaduct en route from Mountain Ash to Abergavenny but cannot remember any details of the trip. I found this account very interesting and informative having recently visited Crumlin and seen the remains of the Eastern end of the viaduct


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