THE railway viaduct doesn’t just march through Yarm, it stomps, towering above the rooftops and shaking the ground with its 43 giant footsteps as it strides across a finger-shaped peninsula of low-lying land within a loop of the River Tees.

A splendid framed print, which is believed to have been made to commemorate the viaduct’s opening on May 15, 1852, is one of the star exhibits at today’s Darlington Book Fair.

On that opening day, the Darlington & Stockton Times said: “From the viaduct, the view of the town of Yarm, and of the valley up and down the River Tees, is very beautiful.”

The statistics surrounding the viaduct’s construction are staggering. It is 2, 280ft (690 metres) long and the two of its 43 arches which span the Tees carry the trackbed 65ft above the waterline. These two arches are made of 139,000 cubic feet of stone and their foundations, as was common for river crossings in those days, were rested on bags of wool.

The other 41 land arches contain 7.5m bricks.

The viaduct cost £44,500 – that’s £5.6m in today’s values, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator – and it was designed by Thomas Grainger, the chief engineer of the Leeds Northern Railway.

The railway joined Leeds with Stockton via Harrogate and Thirsk. “Its termini are in important districts,” said the D&S Times. “One is the seat of extensive woollen manufacturers, the other a thriving port, five days sail nearer the Baltic than the Humber, which has hitherto been the great outlet for the productions of the West Riding.”

The railway’s southern stretch from Leeds to Thirsk was completed first, with Grainger responsible for the two-mile long Bramhope Tunnel, and the 21-arch Arthington Viaduct across the Wharfe Valley near Harrogate.

Then came the 20-mile northern stretch, from Melmerby, just north of Thirsk, to Stockton. “The heaviest work is the Yarm viaduct, an exceedingly handsome structure,” said the D&S.

There are no accounts of the construction of the viaduct. All we know is that the navvies were paid up to £1-a-day – very good money. Some of which was paid as vouchers to be spent in the “tammy shop” on the High Street which was run by the railway company. The rest of the wages was probably spent on beer, as the Yarm navvies were renowned drinkers.

In the 1850s, railway's marched across the countryside hand-in-hand with death. For example, 2,300 navvies were required to dig out Bramhope Tunnel and in nearby Otley churchyard is a memorial, in the shape of the tunnel’s grand entrance, to the 24 men who were killed during the operation. In Yarm, there are no accounts of death, but the height of the viaduct under construction allied to the copious amounts of ale consumed must make it highly likely that some poor fellows toppled in to the next world.

BACK to our print: it also shows Yarm’s other great bridge – the road bridge over the Tees. Until the river was spanned at Stockton in 1771, Yarm was the easternmost crossing of the river, so many journeys converged on the town.

From the 12th Century Yarm had a timber bridge at the tip of the finger-shaped peninsula of land. It marked the furthest reach of the tidal flow up the Tees, and so the town was, in shipping days, a thriving seaport – in the print, you can see lots of rigged vessels pressing to the riverbanks, waiting for the tide.

The road bridge was built in 1400 by Bishop Walter Skirlaw, the great bridge-building Bishop of Durham. The bishop’s bridge has five arches, although during the English Civil War (1642-51), the northernmost arch was converted into a drawbridge, which the Royalists on the Durham side drew up every night so that they weren’t surprised by Parliamentarians invading from Yarm. The drawbridge lasted until 1785 when it was replaced by permanent stonework – its gentle, curved nature is obviously different when studied to the bishop’s other pointy arches.

By the start of the 19th Century, the bishop’s bridge was problematic. Its narrow arches slowed the flow of the river so that sandbanks accumulated, and they became blocked by trees during floods, causing the water to back up into people’s homes.

Plus, in an age of expanding carts, there was only 12ft between the parapets.

So in 1803, the people of Yarm did some sums. They worked out it would cost £7,000 to widen the bishop’s bridge, and £14,000 to rebuild it in stone, but it would only be £8,000 to throw a single span of iron over the Tees.

Iron was the fashionable material of the moment, ever since the Wearmouth Bridge had been successfully constructed over the Wear at Sunderland in 1796 – it was only the second iron bridge in the country after Ironbridge and the longest single span in the world.

So the Yarmsters asked Thomas Wilson, the designer of the Wear bridge, to tackle the Tees. He agreed, saying he’d use the new design that he was developing to span the Thames at Staines, near London, which was far better than his Sunderland concept.

It seems not to have bothered the people of Yarm when a week after the Staines bridge opened, the arch drooped and came away from its abutments so that it had to be taken down and rebuilt in wood.

Bravely, Yarm pressed on. On September 3, 1805, Wilson laid foundations next to Bp Skirlaw’s crossing. As the new iron bridge grew, the Yarm inhabitants decided it was too low and should be raised by 4ft. Wilson accommodated the change, but it also meant raising the height of the southern approach road.

The bridge was complete on September 26, 1805. The mayor of Stockton drove a carriage into the centre to inspect it – and to toast it. But he couldn’t complete his journey into Yarm as the Yarmites were arguing over how they were going to raise £300 bill to build the raised roadway.

Their arguments continued over the winter of 1805 with the road unbuilt and the £8,000 bridge unused.

Their arguments concluded at midnight on January 12, 1806, when, with a crash so terrific it shook the townspeople out of their beds, the 250-ton iron bridge collapsed into the river. Its southern abutment had given way.

The Yarm people went back to their sums and realised that, after all, it was more cost-efficient to widen the bishop’s 400-year-old bridge, which they did within a couple of years.

It is that crossing that still carries the traffic from Eaglescliffe in Durham into Yarm in the North Riding.

BACK once more to our print. The artist appears to be in Eaglescliffe churchyard on the Durham side. The raised railside building in the top right hand corner is the original Yarm station which is also on the Durham side – even though it bore the name of the North Yorkshire town.

This station closed in 1960, and is now offices. A new halt opened to the south of the town in 1996.

A FINAL glance at the print. On the skyline to the right of the station is a windmill. On the left of the print, just before the southbound train passes behind the tree, there appears to be a second windmill. To be historically accurate, there should be a third windmill somewhere on the skyline.

DARLINGTON BOOK FAIR, where the print is on display and for sale, is today from 10am until 4pm at the Sixth Form College in Vane Terrace.