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Railway History in Layers

The story of the Castlefield viaducts in Manchester. . . . . . .

We all know the overall story, the history of transportation in the UK, from roads (of a sort) to canals and thence to railways. During the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it sometimes became a struggle as canals and railways tried to reach the same central locations, particularly in the fast growing cities of the north. Think of Leeds, for example. If you know Leeds, you might know that the main station, the old ‘City’ station, is built over the Aire Calder navigation resulting in some strange and very damp catacombs beneath the station.

On another scale is the Castlefield area of Manchester.

For many years I have struggled to work out the pattern of viaducts that seem to criss cross an area of the city which is also home to old canals and warehouses. Viaducts seem to head in all directions and even when travelling by train across the area it’s still difficult to pick out what goes where. Some viaducts are now disused, others carry trains and trams. Recently, the National Trust announced the intention to build an urban park on the highest level, and now disused, viaduct. A consortium of various authorities will spend £1.8million creating a green walkway in the sky, with temporary access planned for July this year (2022) – guided tours only, at first. After watching a video of the proposal I decided it was time to sort out in my own mind which viaduct went where at Castlefield, and put an end to that sense of bewilderment I always have when travelling through Manchester on the train.

Manchester Castlefield Viaduct. Design plans. Photos:

Mamucium ruins. Photo:

The Romans got there first, of course, with their fort, Mamucium, the remains of which are at the floor of what seems like a forest of steel and brick that rises above it in successive viaducts. The canals here were the very first in the UK and the world – the Bridgewater (1764) coming together with the Rochdale in 1805. Brick warehouses which sprouted on the banks, locks and waterway junctions are now home to desirable renovations, pubs and walks, laced together with modern walkways and pedestrian bridges, nudging pedestrians away from the busy roads of the city.

Rochdale canal railway viaduct. Photo: Wikimedia

The first railway here, terminated at Liverpool Road in 1830 with a station that survives as part of the Manchester Science and Industry Museum. A warehouse there followed in 1831. In 1848-9, the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJ&AR) ventured across the canals, building the first viaduct (or rather two, in practice) – cast iron and red brick in arches across the Rochdale Canal. The scale of this project was amazing – ‘a viaduct of 300,000 cubic feet of stone, 50 million bricks and 3,000 tons of cast or wrought iron, crossing 28 streets, canals or streams.’ (George Dow’s ‘History of the Great Central Railway’)

Photo: flickr

Next came a higher level ’iron truss girder viaduct’ of 1877 built for the Cheshire Lines Committee by the Midland Railway to access the new Manchester Central station. This is known as the ‘Cornbrook’ viaduct and is now used by Metro-lInk Trams. Are you following me so far? Good because now we add another layer with the Great Northern viaduct of 1894, built for its warehouse on Deansgate. This is of ‘tubular steel with turrets’ (presumably a nod to Manchester’s past, if not its Roman past).

Finally, there is the Salford branch viaduct of the MSJ&AR from 1848-9, tangential to our story here but an important metal thread now sitting beneath parts of the Cornbrook and Great Northern Viaducts. This is a viaduct with the approaches consisting of 224 brick arches.


Well, I won’t test readers on all this but you can get the general idea, of what seems like layer upon layer of viaducts over an existing canal junction. From below, bridges and parapets tower above the canal walker, trains and trams rumble across at regular intervals in different directions while water drips down somewhere into the canal in quieter moments. And, overall, there is the softer background noise of the busy city. I can almost hear railway owners elbowing and nudging each other to get the best position for their lines across the canal from one side of the city to another. Quite a place.

The urban walkway is intended for the highest viaduct, the Great Northern one, built in the 1890’s and closed in 1969. Judged to be in a worse state than the Cornbrook when it came to a designated Metrolink tram route, it’s new purpose will be as a ‘garden in the sky’ across an important part of Manchester’s Urban Heritage Park of Castlefield. It’s certainly going to be a great walk in the sky, but look down, look up, and see that vertical layering of transport history, the strata of Manchester’s railway archaeology, and be amazed.


John Swanwick

The walkway is a project developed by the National Trust, the National Highways Historical Railways Estate, Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Transport for Greater Manchester, as well several local communities and businesses. There are four other working partners: Urban Wilderness, the Science and Industry Museum, City of Trees, and Castlefield Forum, each creating their own unique garden areas on the viaduct.

Find out more here

Tours are planned to start in July 2022 but book first and check for updates.

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