Tuesday, 20 July 2010
When the train passes through Balcombe station on its way towards the Sussex coast, I know it's time to stop whatever I'm doing if I don't want to lose the scenic highlight of the journey: the view over the Ouse Valley and the Sussex Weald as the train crosses the impressive viaduct built by the London & Brighton Railway. Apart from a few cottages and Ardingly College towards the east, all one can see are fields and woods. In season the rhododendrons at Borde Hill add a tiny touch of colour to the otherwise green countryside.
Yet to appreciate the size of the viaduct -449.6 m long and up to 29.3 m high- and realize what a feat of engineering it is, one has to see it from a distance and then walk until one can stand beneath it. The Ouse Valley or Balcombe Viaduct was built between 1839 and 1841 to a design by John Urpeth Rastrick. David Mocatta, the railway's architect, designed the balustrade and the two groups of four Italianate pavilions erected at each end of the viaduct. More than eleven million bricks are said to have been used in its construction. They were brought from Holland by boat to Newhaven and then by barges. The River Ouse may be a small stream today but back then it had been made navigable as far as Balcombe. Eventually the Ouse Navigation, which had been completed in 1812, was killed by the very railway it helped to build.
Like most viaducts and bridges of the Victorian era, it testifies to the confidence of railway companies and their belief they could domesticate any obstacle that stood on the way of progress. The London & Brighton Railway disappeared but its most visible construction is still carrying more than hundred trains a day.
The Ouse Valley Viaduct was restored in the mid-1990s at a cost of £6.5 million.