If ever there’s a need to restore the old L&SWR main line between Exeter and Plymouth, perhaps because the present route past Dawlish becomes unsustainable, there will be a problem at the Meldon Viaduct, three miles west of Okehampton.
It’s a spectacular piece of engineering, 120 feet high, crossing the West Okement River on a curve. The initial single-line crossing, which opened in 1874, was duplicated by an identical structure, spliced to the original, in 1878.
Designed by the company engineer W R Galbraith, it has five wrought-iron piers which support cast-iron Warren truss spans, and as such is a unique survivor and a Scheduled Ancient Monument
Even more spectacular examples of this type of construction have vanished – the Crumlin Viaduct (200ft high, built 1857, demolished 1965) in south Wales and the Belah Viaduct in Cumbria (196ft high, built 1861, demolished 1963).
The nearest equivalent is the much longer but lower Grade II*-listed Bennerley Viaduct on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, which has lattice-work spans rather than Warren trusses.
The trackbed across Meldon Viaduct, having been used as a roadway for lorries serving the construction of the Meldon Dam in 1970-2, is now part of the Granite Way, which links Okehampton with Lydford.
This presents a difficulty if there’s ever a need to restore the railway because apart from being a Scheduled Ancient Monument the viaduct is no longer strong enough to support the weight of trains.
The easiest way to visit Meldon Viaduct and to clamber down steps to see it from below is by riding the volunteer-operated Dartmoor Railway from Okehampton station to Meldon Quarry station.
A single dining car from an electric multiple unit serves as a café with a spectacular view of the viaduct as the walkers and cyclists cross to and fro.
Meldon Viaduct is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour. For further details, please click here.