Historic England awards grant to repair remains of historic railway bridge

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Historic England has awarded Durham County Council £161,000 to repair and revitalise the remains of the world’s first iron railway bridge.

Completed in 1823, Gaunless Bridge was designed by ‘father of the railways’ George Stephenson and spanned the River Gaunless in West Auckland, in County Durham. Forming part of a line serving the Witton Park Colliery, it originally carried horse-drawn coal wagons, which were then replaced with steam locomotives in around 1833. 

The bridge remained in use until 1901 when it was no longer able to take the weight of the increasingly heavy coal wagons.

Whilst the bridge was dismantled – part of which is on permanent display at the National Railway Museum – the stone abutments supporting the structure remained in place and are now part of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Scheduled Monument. In recent years they have fallen victim to anti-social behaviour, which has affected their condition. 

The grant from Historic England will be used to repair the abutments, which will support a new bridge deck that will form part of the new 26-mile Stockton and Darlington Railway Walking and Cycling route. Alongside the repair work, Historic England will involve the local community, running sessions about the history of the bridge with local school children and setting up a volunteer group dedicated to the long-term care of the site. 

Giles Proctor from Historic England said: “We are really pleased to be funding this restoration project through the Stockton and Darlington Railway Heritage Action Zone. Gaunless Bridge has a significant role in the history of the railway and the repair of its abutments mark the first step in securing the bridge’s legacy as a part of the new Walking and Cycling Route.”   

This project is part of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Heritage Action Zone, a five-year project focused on rejuvenating and restoring the 26 mile stretch of historic railway, and to help realise its potential to become a major heritage attraction and visitor destination in the build up to its 2025 bicentenary.

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economy and partnerships, said: “As the world’s first iron railway bridge, Gaunless Bridge is a key part of our rail heritage, both at a local and national level.

“We’re really pleased therefore that this funding is allowing us to restore and repair the abutments, helping preserve this important site.”

Image credit: Historic England

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