Castlefield Viaduct – Manchester’s High Line

During my recent August bank holiday search for new street art in the city centre I took the opportunity to visit Castlefield Viaduct, the very new and recently opened ‘garden in the sky’, a project developed by the National Trust and four local partner organisations to transform the Grade II listed disused railway viaduct into an urban green space.
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The history of the Castlefield area and the viaduct dates back to 79 AD when Roman soldiers led by General Agricola chose the area as the site of a timber fort which they called Mamucium, later known as Mancunium. Protected by the Rivers Irwell and Medlock it was in a strategic position and well-located to guard important roads leading towards other larger forts. Over time the fort was repaired, enlarged, and eventually rebuilt in stone and a village was established nearby but once the Romans left around 410AD both the fort and the village declined and were eventually abandoned.
In 1086 a village called ‘Mamcester’ was recorded in the Domesday book as lying less than a mile north-east of the old fort. The village grew steadily, incorporating the site of the fort now known as Castlefield (Castle-in-the-field) and by the early 13th century it had become a town, though it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the area really became a significant part of an ever-expanding city.
The industrial heritage of Manchester began around 1758 when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned James Brindley to construct one of Britain’s first canals, built to transport coal to the city from his mines at Worsley. The Bridgewater Canal proved to be a huge success, halving the price of coal and prompting a period of intensive canal-building across the country, and when the Rochdale Canal was completed in 1804 it joined the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, cutting through the site of the old Roman fort and making the area the hub of the city’s canal network.
By this time Manchester was the fastest growing city in the world thanks to the ever-increasing number of cotton mills creating jobs and bringing in trade and eventually it became clear that the canals alone couldn’t move goods fast enough. This led to the dawning of the railway age and in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened, with the Castlefield area becoming the site of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway station, Manchester Liverpool Road, now part of today’s Science and Industry Museum.
Over the next several decades the area became recognised as the central hub for Manchester’s goods transportation network. Warehouses sprang up all over Castlefield to support the network and three railway viaducts were built over the canal basin, with the first one being opened in 1849. The second viaduct opened in 1877 and in the same year an elevated railway was constructed alongside it. In 1885 construction began on the Great Northern Warehouse, designed to be a three-way warehouse served by canal, road and rail, and in 1891 construction started on a fourth viaduct which would carry the railway line above the canal basin to both the warehouse and the adjacent Central Station.
This fourth Castlefield viaduct is a steel latticed girder construction 370yds long and 38ft wide and is an early example of using carbon steel for the girders, replacing the usual cast and wrought iron. Designed by engineer William George Scott it was manufactured and constructed by Heenan and Froude, the engineers behind the construction of the iconic Blackpool Tower, with M W Walmsley & Co. being the masonry contractors.
Supported on fifteen cast iron columns each 10ft 6ins in diameter the viaduct stands approximately 55ft above the canal basin, while the columns themselves are embedded in Portland cement, rest on solid rock some 20ft below ground, and are filled with masonry and cement. The total weight of steel and iron in the viaduct is over 7,000 tons and more than 6 million forged steel rivets were used in the construction. It was completed at a cost of £250,000 (about £20.5 million today) and in a small ceremony held on completion day a special copper rivet was fixed in the one remaining slot, though no-one these days knows exactly where it is.
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For 77 years the viaduct carried heavy rail traffic in and out of the Castlefield area but along with Central Station, now a large convention centre, it closed in 1969 and has been disused ever since. It became Grade II listed on February 14th 1988 and over the years essential periodic repairs and maintenance to keep it safe have been undertaken by what is now Highways England.
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Plans to convert the disused viaduct into an urban ‘sky park’ inspired by New York’s High Line were first proposed in 2012 but unfortunately fell through, however in 2021 a planning application by the National Trust received approval from Manchester City Council to transform around half the viaduct’s length into a temporary ‘garden in the sky’. Funded by private donations and support from local businesses and the People’s Postcode Lottery work began in March 2022 and the viaduct opened to the public in late July as a year-long ‘test and learn’ pilot scheme where visitors and locals can share their feedback and ideas for the structure’s long-term future.
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After the very pleasant Welcome Area at the start of the viaduct a wide central path leads through an experimental planting area where hessian sand bags filled with peat-free compost are being used to encourage plant growth through the viaduct’s ballast. Following on from there is the main part of the garden with long specially designed and constructed planters separating four small partner plots set back off the path. Several of the plant species used, such as cotton grass, have connections to the local area and herbaceous perennials provide pretty splashes of colour among the densely planted ferns and grasses.  
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At the end of the garden is the events space, a light and airy building where visitors can leave their feedback and any ideas for the future of the viaduct. In the far wall a glass door and large windows look out onto the ‘naked viaduct’, the undeveloped section left untouched to provide a sense of how nature has reclaimed the space since the site was closed in 1969. 
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The undeveloped section of the viaduct
View from the viaduct
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Visiting the viaduct is currently only by guided tour and though it’s completely free visitor numbers are limited to 100 per day with tickets having to be booked online – it was only the day after it opened that I’d tried to book but disappointingly I found it was ‘sold out’ right through August and with no dates showing in September. I’d almost put it out of my mind but during my recent search for street art in the city I decided to go to the viaduct on the chance that I might be allowed in and I was lucky – there was just one place left on the next guided tour. Not having known what to expect I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I saw and I really enjoyed my visit so (hopefully) if I can ever manage to book a ticket I’ll certainly go back another time.

16 thoughts on “Castlefield Viaduct – Manchester’s High Line

  1. Eunice, this post is a cracker for me on so many levels. Firstly, Castlefield has to be the most historically interesting area in Manchester (IMHO) and I’m really pleased to see that it’s being brought into the 21st century in a way that still reflects its past, but with some innovative thinking that helps the city’s environment. What’s more, the NT are concentrating on what they do best rather than the politics, and you’ve provided us with some smashing photos of how good the institution can be. Fabulous!


  2. Thanks for your lovely comment Malc, I’m really pleased you like this post. The NT and the contractors they used have done a great job in getting this project up and running in just over four months – it’s a really lovely place and so pretty. At the moment the events space is the end of it but I’d like to think that it could be extended in some form to go right to the far end of the viaduct.

    You’re right about Castlefield being historically interesting. I already have several photos and some info about the area around the canal basin so I may very well get round to writing a post about it in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are our eyes and ears for all things Manchester, Eunice – thanks for keeping us up to date.
    I must have walked under that viaduct at Castlefields many times without realising its full history. I vaguely remember Liverpool Road and Central stations from my childhood.
    What a stunning innovation that hopefully will develop further.


  4. I think it’s hard to appreciate the viaduct just for itself until you get underneath and see it from ground level – those columns are huge. The NT have done some great work on that first section and it was lovely to wander through – I know they got lots of positive feedback in just the first month so fingers crossed it will be developed further after the initial year long trial.


  5. I loved your post and would have loved to have seen this. It’s a pity that they can’t allow more people in. The tickets are all booked up at the moment, because I’ve just looked. It was a good thing you decided to just turn up and chance your luck!


  6. I was chatting to the guide before I left and learned a couple of things ‘re booking a place. Tickets are released every Thursday morning and you need to be on the website by 9.30 to stand a chance of getting one, also they do keep a few places back for anyone just turning up so it might be worth you chancing it when it’s a nice day, especially if it’s during the week. I hope you do manage to get there as it really is lovely and well worth a visit.


  7. What a wonderful idea for the viaduct, it looks great. Well done you on bagging a ticket. I wonder if they will plant winter plants and make it look magical for Christmas?


  8. Thanks for the link, the Paris one sounds really interesting especially with shops under the arches. I looked it up on Google images and it looks really lovely 🙂


  9. The National Trust have done a brilliant job with this and it’s well worth a visit if you should come to Manchester any time. The area around the canal basin is nice too, especially on a sunny day 🙂


  10. Fantastic idea and it must have taken a heck of a lot of work, Eunice. It looks brilliant! I always fancied the High Line in New York but never made it there. They’ve done a great job and I hope to be able to see it myself next summer. Many thanks to you for sharing.


  11. I’m glad the NT got permission to develop the viaduct, they’ve done a great job and hopefully it will be further developed after the trial period. I know you have mentioned before that you weren’t impressed with Manchester itself but if you do get the chance to visit the viaduct next summer I’m sure you will like it. And for a special not-exactly-cheap treat you could combine your visit with coffee and cake or afternoon tea at Cloud 23 on the 23rd floor of the nearby Betham Tower just along Deansgate 🙂


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