Castlefield Viaduct: From vacant transport infrastructure to a park in the sky

6 December 2022
A view across to Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester where a new sky park has been created for the city. Credit James Dobson & National Trust Images

From Roman roads to Victorian viaducts...

In many ways, Castlefield is the heart of Manchester and, for a time, was the beating heart of the industrialising world. This pivotal role began with the establishment of the Roman fort of Mamucium in 79AD. It rose to prominence once again in the 18th century, with the Bridgewater Canal (1763), the first great achievement of the canal age, followed by the structures of the ‘Railway Mania’ that criss-crossed the basin, enabling international trade.

Over a thousand years of innovation, prosperity, engineering marvels, and commercial success are visible at this confluence of transport infrastructure, offering a tangible reminder of Manchester’s position as a global force.

In 2021, Purcell produced a statement of significance on Castlefield Viaduct, a monumental piece of transport infrastructure, to help guide and inform the package of works undertaken by the National Trust.

Today, the structure offers a spectacular new attraction for the region with a series of partner plots of planting and an event hub, where visitors and the local community can share ideas about the future of the building. This contrast of nature and industry, along with the opportunity to walk the route of the railway line and enjoy views of the city skyline never seen by the public, has proved hugely popular with Mancunians and tourists alike.

Artist impressions of Castlefield Viaduct

Understanding significance and guiding change

Many elements of the Viaduct’s significance are clear, such as the engineering dominance and scale: our research revealed other important stories, adding richness to our understanding of the site.

The Viaduct holds an important place in a wider network of transport infrastructure around Castlefield dating back over 2000 years, from Roman roads and pioneering canals to the world’s first inter-city railway line and warehouse. The significance of the transport networks around Castlefield, to which the Viaduct contributes, is unparalleled. The use of carbon steel for the Viaduct in 1892, puts the engineers, Heenan and Froude, at the forefront of technology. They also produced the steelwork for the Blackpool Tower consecutively with the Viaduct, meaning girders for both may have sat side by side in the Manchester Newton Heath Ironworks.

Using this historic background, our statement of significance helped guide proposals and inform the capacity for change of the Grade II-listed structure, for both the current works and the potential for further intervention. There continues to be considerable public interest in the Viaduct: from the beginning of our involvement in the project, we wanted to capture this enthusiasm through our work, in the form of communal value and in considering what the public envisions for the future of this iconic Manchester structure. 

This further informed the presentation of our report for wider public interest meaning it had to be innovative, clear, and accessible. Our in-house graphics team produced a smart document available to download on computers or smart devices with high-quality graphics, images, and markups.  

Manchester's recently opened Castlefield Viaduct in use on an autumn day
Manchester's recently opened Castlefield Viaduct in use on an autumn day

'Mark and the team at Purcell were great to work with on our statement of heritage significance for the Castlefield Viaduct. They brought a real passion to the work and a keen appetite for research, uncovering new material even in difficult circumstances when archives were closed during covid restrictions, and working to an incredibly tight timeline. They worked with us collaboratively throughout and homed in on areas that were of particular interest to us (engineering significance, people value) at our request. They were able to conduct surveys and consultations quickly but thoughtfully, giving us useful and targeted intel that still guides our decisions. The SOHS has remained a live and relevant document consistently shared with the project team, clients, and the public, and a hugely useful resource to guide our interpretation and activation of the whole site.'

— Sophie Wardell, Urban Places Programme Manager, National Trust

Foliage and flowers in bloom at Manchester's Castlefield Viaduct

A new future for historic transport infrastructure

Visiting today, it’s easy to gain an impression of the grandeur, affluence, and power the Cheshire Lines Committee were keen to promote: the Gothic structure strides confidently across Castlefield Basin, with railway columns sitting within the earlier canal navigation, which the railways would help make largely redundant. Robust structures of the Victorian age, such as Manchester Town Hall and Manchester Central vie for prominence alongside 21st century skyscrapers. The rhythmic sound of trains and trams thundering past serve to remind visitors of the original purpose of the Viaduct, which has now been given a second life as an urban park.  

Neighbouring viaducts have continued their rail functions or found new uses as part of the Manchester Metrolink, but finding a use for rail structures where their original function is no longer required is challenging. Following in the footsteps of the Promenade Plantée in Paris and the New York High Line, Manchester's Castlefield Viaduct offers an exciting prospect for the many disused transport structures around the U.K. through thoughtful, significance-led, and community engagement initiatives offering protection and conservation of heritage assets and the greening of our inner cities.   

Purcell's Manchester Studio team visit Castlefield Viaduct
The Manchester Studio team visit Castlefield Viaduct