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Skerne Bridge
River Skerne, Darlington, County Durham, UK
associated engineer
George Stephenson
Ignatius Bonomi
date  1824 - 1825, opened 27th September 1825
era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  NZ290155
ICE reference number  HEW 151
Skerne Bridge, built for the Stockton & Darlington Railway, is believed to be the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world still in use. The line was the first steam-powered permanent public railway and a forerunner of our modern rail network. The bridge has been widened and now forms part of the line from Darlington north-west to Weardale.
The Stockton & Darlington Railway was constructed to transport minerals and coal to the River Tees at Stockton for onward shipment. It was the first major civil engineering work of George Stephenson (1781-1848), and in addition to planning the railway he founded Robert Stephenson & Co (23rd June 1823) in Newcastle upon Tyne to manufacture the necessary equipment and steam engines for the project.
Construction of the railway commenced on 13th May 1822 and the line opened on 27th September 1825. The original 40km route included two bridges, this one over the River Skerne and one (NZ186266) across the River Gaunless near West Auckland (now relocated). In 1830, the railway was extended and a single span masonry bridge was built over the Gaunless at Haggerleazes (NZ117256) and an iron suspension bridge (NZ447179) across the River Tees in Stockton, replaced in 1844 by a cast iron truss girder bridge.
Skerne Bridge is the railway’s foremost piece of infrastructure, spanning the largest ravine on the line, some 1.6km north of Darlington town centre. It is the world’s earliest bridge built specifically for a railway (as opposed to a wagonway or tramroad) remaining in continuous use.
Initially, Stephenson was to design an iron bridge with masonry abutments. However, problems arose with the foundation design. When the Gaunless Bridge was damaged by flooding and had to be rebuilt (1823-4), and the price of iron rose, the railway company directed him to seek advice from Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870), architect and Durham county bridge surveyor.
On 6th July 1824, Francis Mewburn (1785-1867) laid the first stone of the new bridge, apparently "with Mr Bonomi’s modifications incorporated". Mewburn, a solicitor, had been responsible for piloting the Stockton & Darlington Railway Bill through Parliament and he became clerk to the railway company. Amid further doubts about the suitability of iron, Bonomi’s Classical design for a three arch masonry structure between rubble embankments was approved, making it the first architect-designed railway bridge.
By November 1824, construction was under way, finishing in early 1825. The contractor was Francis Peacock of Yarm. The bridge would open officially, along with the rest of the railway, on 27th September 1825, and cost £2,300. Its three arches consist of a main river span of 12m in width and 9m clearance above water level. Two smaller semi-circular flood relief arches of 2.4m spans flank the river arch, providing pedestrian access on each bank.
The bridge is of coursed sandstone, with piers 2.4m wide. The river arch consists of a ring of sandstone voussoirs, with an outer half-round projecting moulding. As built, the bridge was originally 6.7m wide with a projecting parapet supported on stone corbelling.
During construction Bonomi noted, "There will be about 3,000 cubic feet [85 cu m] of stone in the arch ... I hope that the offsets of the foundations may be found to project a little within the great arch in order to get a stool for the support of the centring ... the arch cannot be too tightly set at first. It will certainly tighten itself when the centring is eased, but if it has too much play, the form of the arch will be distorted ...".
By late 1828, the embankments on either side were becoming unstable, and cracks had appeared in the bridge. The company directors engaged stonemason John Falcus Carter (1787-1831) from Heighington to undertake repairs. In 1829, he added the earth retaining wing walls that can be seen at each corner of the bridge. They are of rusticated sandstone blocks, segmental in plan, curving to a radius of about 9.1m.
In 1875, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, local landscape artist John Dobbin (1815-88) was commissioned to paint a retrospective of the opening day. As he had been only 10 years old at the time, he painted the bridge as it was in 1875, complete with curving wing walls.
Later, a gas works was constructed on John Street and the bridge’s southern face was obscured by gas pipelines across the river. The pedestrian access ways through the bridge's relief arches were closed, and at some point the river was canalised.
Skerne Bridge was widened to enable it to carry double rail tracks instead of the siingle line it originally carried. The south elevation still retains its original parapet but the north elevation was altered.
In June 1970, the bridge was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument and described as an "architecturally outstanding" example of an early and well-preserved railway bridge.
In 1990, the Bank of England issued a £5 note with a stylised illustration of the bridge on the reverse. The image also showed two Stephenson locomotives — Locomotion No.1 crossing the bridge and Rocket standing in the foreground.
Though the bridge has been maintained and continues to carry rail traffic, the surrounding area has been much neglected in the past. A refurbishment project was underway by October 2016, incorporating approach footpaths and a cycleway under the bridge. The work was a collaborative effort between Darlington Borough Council and The North Eastern Railway Association, and opened on 27th September 2017, the 192nd anniversary of the bridge's opening.
Darlington Railway Centre and Museum adjoins the current North Road Station, 320m north west of the bridge. Now known as Head of Steam, the museum’s exhibits relate to the areas served by the North Eastern Railway and its predecessor the Stockton & Darlington Railway, including Stephenson's Locomotion No.1.
Architect: Ignatius Bonomi
Contractor: Francis Peacock of Yarm
Contractor (1829): John Falcus Carter of Heighington
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Darlington in 50 Buildings" by Chris Lloyd, Amberley Publishing Limited, 2017
www.darlington.gov.uk
www.friendsofdrcm.org
www.gracesguide.co.uk
www.historicengland.org.uk
www.ice.org
www.sdr1825.co.uk
www.thenorthernecho.co.uk
www.transporttrust.com
Location

Skerne Bridge