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Ouse Viaduct, Balcombe
Ryelands Farm, Balcombe, West Sussex, UK
Ouse Viaduct, Balcombe
associated engineer
John Urpeth Rastrick
date  1839 - 1842, opened 12th July 1841
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway Viaduct  |  reference  TQ321280
ICE reference number  HEW 33
photo  PHEW, courtesy ICE
An extremely elegant railway viaduct that carries the London to Brighton main line over the River Ouse, between Balcombe and Haywards Heath in West Sussex. The red brick structure still carries more than 100 trains daily. It has had major restoration work and is Grade II* listed.
Construction of the London & Brighton Railway commenced in July 1838, following the direct route proposed by Sir John Rennie (1794-1874). Despite hilly terrain, gradients were limited to 1 in 264, necessitating four tunnels and this viaduct over the Ouse Valley. The line’s major works were designed by the railway company’s engineer John Urpeth Rastrick (1780-1856) and its architect David Mocatta (1806-82).
The viaduct near Balcombe is the most impressive structure on the route. It was begun in 1839, and has been called one of the most elegant viaducts ever built. It is 500m long and runs in a straight line over 37 identical arches. At its highest point, the bridge is 29.3m above the river.
Each of the viaduct’s semicircular red brick arches spans 9.1m. They are supported on red brick piers that taper in their side and end elevations, and are pierced by deep vertical voids 3m wide, almost dividing each pier in two. The voids are capped by six-ring semicircular brick arches at top and bottom. The weight-saving design also has visual lightness, giving the whole structure a slender appearance.
The classically balustraded parapets are of pale Caen limestone, consisting of a series of narrow round-headed arches with corbelled refuges above the ends of each pier. The same stone is used for the string courses, pier caps and the four small rectangular Italianate pavilions set at each end of the viaduct (above the abutments).
The viaduct was built to carry two tracks of the London & Brighton Railway. When it opened on 12th July 1841, only one line was operational. Work continued on the second line and the parapets and pavilions, and the project was completed in 1842.
The structure contains some 11 million bricks, apparently mostly imported from Holland, though some were made locally. The Caen stone was shipped from Normandy to Newhaven. Bricks, stone and other construction materials were transported to site in barges on the River Ouse navigation.
During the 1890s, extensive brickwork repairs were undertaken using engineering bricks and mortar cement that were stronger than the original fabric of the viaduct. No doubt the intention was to make the structure more robust but it had the opposite effect. The repair work bore a greater share of the loading, and then failed. The situation was exacerbated by the header bricks not being bonded properly.
From 1956 onwards, concerns have been raised over the worsening condition of the limestone parapets and pavilions. However, refurbishment work was not undertaken owing to the cost of remediation.
In May 1983, the viaduct was Grade II* listed. Sometime in the early 1980s, the eight pavilions were propped internally to avoid further roof collapses. A British Rail proposal to dismantle and rebuild them in reconstituted stone was not approved by English Heritage.
By the 1990s, weathered balustrading and deteriorating stone fixings were diminishing the stability of the parapets in some areas. The pattern of weathering varied — a number of cornice stones had spalled and fallen off, though many of the refuges remained in good condition.
Between March 1996 and September 1999, the viaduct was repaired and restored by Railtrack with part funding from the Railway Heritage Trust, English Heritage and West Sussex County Council. The scheme cost £6.5 million, of which £1.2 million was spent on scaffolding.
Parapet and pavilion restoration was carried out on each side of the viaduct in turn, with the workforce operating behind tall safety screens while one line remained open to rail traffic throughout the project. Existing stonework was dismantled and repaired or discarded. Stainless steel anchors now tie new stone to old through drilled cores, and all the cornices are anchored to avoid future falls. Richemont Blanc limestone from a quarry near Bordeaux has been used for replacement stonework, as it matches the original Caen limestone. Reconstructing the pavilions exposed the original cast iron fish-bellied lintel beams. They were blast-cleaned, repainted and reused.
As part of the project, efflorescence and calcite deposits were removed from the brickwork, revealing widespread debonded Victorian repairs and fractured quoins. The taller piers were affected to a greater extent, and one of the pier voids had to be reconstructed while temporary works supported its arch. New repair bricks were handmade in a variety of sizes to suit the existing brickwork and set in a sand, cement and lime mortar.
The Ouse Viaduct remains a vital part of the rail network, carrying around 110 trains every day, and is a popular local landmark.
Architect: David Mocatta
Contractor: Benjamin Baylis
Research: ECPK
"Restoration of the Ouse Valley Viaduct" by Mark Huband, Bridge Management 4, Thomas Telford Ltd, London, 2000
"A Critical Analysis of the Ouse Valley Viaduct, West Sussex" by Lloyd Jefferson, Proceedings of Bridge Engineering 2 Conference, University of Bath, Bath, 2010
reference sources   CEH South

Ouse Viaduct, Balcombe