Jonathan Schofield ponders the Castlefield Viaduct 'Highline'
Well look here, we’ve got there at last. The Castlefield viaduct project is about to become Manchester’s most elevated promenade. A pilot scheme is being launched on the 330-metre long viaduct built in the 1890s. This will have visitor access from July this year for 12 months and will be used to assess the viability of permanent public access.
It’s taken a while. Since Confidentials became the first to write about the aspiration in 2007 there have been lots of false starts but now reality bites through the intervention of the National Trust. This institution has worked with the indefatigable and admirable residents and businesses’ group Castlefield Forum as well as Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Transport for Greater Manchester and the ultimate owners, National Highways Historical Railway Estate.
A public-funded public space
The scheme has proved popular. The pilot project will cost £1.8 million, made possible by funding from People’s Postcode Lottery and public donations which will cover two-thirds of the build costs.
To quote the Forum: "The pilot will create a green space stretching halfway along the viaduct. Trees, flowers and shrubs will be planted, and free tours offered. Visitors will have the opportunity to find out more about the viaduct’s heritage and be able to learn some urban gardening tips. New features will include installations, a community events space and native planting."
I can see the future of the viaduct as dynamic, as a verdant canvas: glorious planting with light and sound shows projected at apt moments across the cat's cradle of the viaduct's ironwork. When events take place in the Castlefield Bowl perhaps the viaduct can take part as well. In the past, for instance, it's been a platform for fireworks so maybe, given the planting schemes, it might again deliver a sense of elevated theatre with perhaps less whizz, flash and bang.
The National Trust stated on the press walk quite clearly this is "Phase One" and they are inviting views and opinions.
What to expect from the pilot scheme
Here are a few of my first thoughts within my overall love for the scheme.
The plan is for twenty pre-booked guests to access for free the viaduct for 45 minutes. This number sounds low. The viaduct used to take goods trains weighing more than 1,000 tons so unless we’re anticipating several guests bringing along their troops of African elephants then surely more people could be fitted up there at any one time, notwithstanding the weight of planters, topsoil and so on?
It would also be good to see the whole of the viaduct opened to give people a true appreciation of its length which, if you know the city well, is the equivalent of the distance from Liverpool Road (at Beetham Tower) along Deansgate to a little beyond the Peter Street junction. Let's hope that happens at some stage but, to be fair, let's stress again that this is a pilot scheme, not the completed one, and what will open in July still provides an excellent stroll, gardens and those views.
For now, that unopened half will be "left untouched to provide a sense of how nature has reclaimed the viaduct since the site was closed in the late 1960s". In truth, the viaduct has been cleared of self-seeded greenery on several occasions. For many it would be best if, eventually, the whole viaduct deck became a formal garden, the sides of the viaduct already look like a pair of parterres balanced on their edge.
People bemoan in Manchester the long-gone flower beds of Piccadilly Gardens. The city centre now lacks formal public gardens maintained to a high standard, so why not bring them back here? If people want self-seeding and re-wilding then they need just pop down to Pioneer Quay, at the southern end of Deansgate, between the viaducts and Rochdale Canal, which is a mess.
Another idea might be to create a garden of fruit, herbs and veg which could be donated to local schools or food banks. There wouldn’t be the quantities available to provide a guaranteed source for commercial food and drink operators but produce grown on the viaduct might help other organisations, at least a little.
These points are not intended to be negative. The National Trust wants to open up discussion about the long term use of the viaduct - so add these to the conversation.
One part of the scheme that might have been of concern was the noise. It's surprising how little the passing of trams and trains in close proximity on each side does to affect the experience of a walk along the viaduct. Instead, it adds another element to enjoy, a moving man-made spectacle. Train-spotters with green fingers book now. After five minutes, I wasn't even registering the rattle of steel wheel on steel rail.
Confidentials has been right behind the project for years. We are excited by the idea of the public enjoying this walk through gardens high over Castlefield offering views west and north-west over Salford’s climbing skyline and south into the mighty towers of Deansgate Square. The project will clearly be an asset and an addition to the city’s visitor offer.
A final point about the history of the viaduct
It’s grand that this example of Victorian powerhouse engineering is coming to life again. Not that it was totally forgotten. The viaduct, under its mighty shadow, has had a half-life since closure as a good backdrop for band shoots, tv series and movies, not least the forthcoming climax of "Peaky Blinders" which was filmed here in 2021.
Yet, if you do take that walk over the viaduct in July tip your Peaky Blinders cap to the castle-like decoration on the piers as fine examples of the double-think of Victorians. The viaduct destroyed a large part of the Roman fort site of Manchester, just as its three still-surviving predecessors around this site had, but the railway company revealed where it had destroyed part of the site by perversely including fortress-like decoration.
That background of a 2,000-year-old story is also intended to be part of the Castlefield Viaduct project. The retention and opening of the viaduct to the public reinforces the importance of context in cities. A mixture of older and newer structures tells a very human story of how cities morph, in this case within the industrial and architectural fashions of different ages. Given Castlefield is a paradigm example of at alchemy, it will be good to welcome the viaduct back as a place to move over, albeit this time on foot.
Read next: Massive new playground announced for Manchester city centre
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