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Newark, Smeaton's Viaduct

John Smeaton's viaduct, taking the Great North Road across the Trent flood plain, was the biggest piece of road engineering before the 20th century yet it is almost unknown, unnoticed and forgotten.  Starting from Newark castle, cross the bridge and over the bypass roundabout.  The Great North Road, now the A6065, shows off little of Smeaton's feat except some low brick walls on either sides of the road.  But stop somewhere between the sugar beet factory and the bridge over the northern branch of the Trent and look over one of those bits of old wall.  Or better still, find somewhere to scramble down the bank and look at the arches from below and you will appreciate the enormous scale of this piece of 18th century engineering.  There are an awful lot of handmade bricks.   

"At the beginning of the period Nottinghamshire was distinguished by a road infrastructure in lamentable state of disarray, with no real difference in the appalling state of the roads between East and West. Between 1750 and 1770 most of the major routes in the County were converted to turnpikes. In 1766 the Great North Road was re-routed away from the Forest, to run through Retford, and was carrying 90 coaches per day plus stage wagons and packhorses.  The rerouting had a major impact on the towns now along its route, Retford, Tuxford, and Newark.  A series of flood events in the last half of the 18th Century caused major disruptions to passage along the Great north road by Newark, and a major loss of business to the town.   John Smeaton was commissioned to find a means of allowing traffic to continue unimpeded and yet allow the floodwaters to drain.  He came up with the brilliant notion of building a causeway punctuated by arches across the Trent Floodplain.  The work was completed by 1800, it involved a causeway 1 kilometre or so long, crossing three parishes, and a grand total of 125 arches." from: Ursilla Spence and Mike Bishop, East Midlands Archaeological Research Framework: An Archaeological Resource Assessment of Modern Nottinghamshire (1750 onwards), Nottinghamshire County Council.  For the rest of their paper as a pdf click here.

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Some of Smeaton's arches

In about 1770 the road north from Newark to Muskham, which regularly became impassable because of flooding, as it crosses the very low-lying land between the two branches of the river, was raised on a long series of arches to ensure it remained clear at all times. This was a very considerable improvement which proved its value again when all the surrounding land was deep under water in November 2000 but the road remained clear, unlike the branch road to Kelham.

According to Brown, the Trustees of the roads had pressed for work on the road across the Trent flood plain but it was not until after a disastrous flood in 1766 that action was taken.  Smeaton was consulted and his designs accepted in January of 1768.  The work was completed, at a cost of £12000 in about 1770.  In the 1778 edition od Defoe's Tour through Britain, there appears an editorial note by Richardson: "...the vast new-raised road from the castle over the flat often over-flowed by the Trent...whether we consider the greatness or the utility of the work it may be looked upon as one of the greatest of the kind ever executed in England".

If you are confused about which river, the one under the Trent Bridge by the castle or the one under the Muskham Bridge, is the River Trent, they both are.  The Trent divides, and has done since 1558, just west of Newark with most of the water flowing in the northern channel.  The River Devon is a smaller tributary joining the town branch of the Trent from the south.  Here is a fuller explanation.

We meet the works of Smeaton again in Boroughbridge.


©Biff Vernon 2001, 2002