Thursday, 30 December 2010

Walkham Viaduct

For those of you not fortunate enough to live in a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the coast and Dartmoor, with NCN route 27 passing less than half a mile from your front door, the Walkham is a river that gave it's name to the village of Walkhampton.

Apart from that bit of otherwise unrelated info, the river forms a rather formidable obstacle to cyclists, walkers, horses and livestock. In days gone by, the Victorians weren't put off by silly little obstacles like deep valleys and rivers. Oh no! They simply built impressive viaducts across them!
The picture above doesn't do the viaduct justice: it was enormous. In fact, records show it was over 1100 feet long, which is around 370 meters. Considering it was a wooden structure sat upon stone pillars, Brunel certainly did a good job here!

Once the GWR railway branch line linking Yelverton with Tavistock closed (around 1960, I believe) the viaduct was soon demolished. Even the stone pillars were removed.

At some stage a pretty little wooden bridge was built to allow people to cross the river, and at this moment in time it remains the only way to cross the Walkham at this point, unless you like getting very wet.

Eventually the madness that allowed people to buy (or sometimes simply seize!) tracts of land that used to be part of the railways stopped, and some more enlightened souls realised just how valuable these ribbons could be in providing paths free of motorised traffic.

Drake's Trail is one such path. It was named after the (locally!) much revered cut-throat pirate, war-monger and slave trader Sir Francis Drake, apparently simply because he spent some of his ill-gotten gains on his home at Buckland Abbey, which is nearby.

Aside from the poor choice of name, the trail is a rather nice one. From Yelverton it takes the form of a tarred path, until it reaches The Old Station, a road named so for entirely predictable reasons, where it becomes a gravelled surface. When dry it isn't too bad, but when wet in places it becomes so muddy and slippery that riding it is downright tricky.

Eventually, Drake's Trail gets to the point where the once incredible Grenofen viaduct once bridged the valley that the Walkham had painstakingly carved through the ages. And at this point it turns from an OK-ish path to a downright iffy one.

This is because you have zig-zag your way down to the valley floor, down a rough track that is erm..... interesting to negotiate in the wet! At the bottom you have to cross using the stepped wooden bridge, before being presented with a hill steep enough to cause wheel spin in the dry when cycling up it.

Devon County Council, despite some of their other failings, is actually quite switched on, and have realised the economic value cycling brings to the region. It is this same attitude that made them tar most of the cycle paths - they are clever enough to realise the long-term maintenance cost is lower. Overall, I think many county and unitary councils can learn a lot from Devon! (Plymouth City Council, I'm especially looking at YOU here!)

Devon decided quite some time ago to build a new viaduct to replace the old Grenofen viaduct. Despite the cut-backs the ConDemned government rammed down everybody's throats apparently Devon had decided the viaduct would still go ahead. Hurrah for Devon!

On the 9th of October 2010, I cycled to Tavistock, and I was happy to see orange metal markers staked all over. Clearly this was a sign that construction of the new viaduct was imminent! After all, they have already carved the old railway bed down to a far lower level, so the new viaduct won't need to be quite as high as the old one. (Lower = cheaper, OK? Remember what I said about them being switched on?)

Today was the first time since then that I had the opportunity to cycle out that way again. With eager anticipation I approached the site of the viaduct. See, I have hunted high and low for news on what progress had been made, but failed to find any updates, so I simply had to go and see for myself.

And then I saw it: there definately  was progress since I last cycled that way! Guess what the progress was? They've cleared the vegetation all the way down to the valley floor, and that is all! We're talking gorse bushes growing shoulder height or less, not giant redwood trees! I was well disappointed!
I'm even more disappointed at Devon's lack of updates on the project. Why don't they have a status page on their site that tells us what is happening, and what the expected time-scales are?

Anyway, here are a few pics I've taken of the site today:
This photo shows the starting point of the proposed viaduct, with the river far below. If you look very carefully you might be able to make out some orange stakes. On the opposite side you can just see the path leading up the hill.

This photo shows how they've carved the old railway bed away to lower it. This will mean that there'd be a slight uphill either side of the new viaduct, but it'd still be a vast improvement over what we have now.
Sadly, the path surface isn't much better than what you see here, until you get to The Old Station.