Wakefield's 99 Arches: Historian and artist launch project to learn more about city's famous viaduct - and count just how many arches there are

You’ve walked past them, driven under them and maybe even taken a train along the top of them. But how much do you really know about Wakefield’s 99 Arches?

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 12:30 pm

The lengthy viaduct runs across Wakefield city centre, carrying hundreds of trains and thousands of passengers each week.

But while discussing the structure on Twitter earlier this year, Wakefield Civic Society president Kevin Trickett was asked an interesting question: just how many arches make up the city’s viaduct?

It was a simple query, but one with a surprisingly complicated answer.

You’ve walked past them, driven under them and maybe even taken a train along the top of them. But how much do you really know about Wakefield’s 99 Arches? Artist Tony Wade is seen under one of the arches. Photo: Scott Merrylees

Though it might sound like a self-explanatory question, Kevin said he had heard from people who claimed to have counted as many as 106 arches in the span.

Some of the original constructions, Kevin says, have since been replaced with bridges, or may have been hidden from view by other buildings and constructions.

But it is generally agreed that the viaduct begins in Back Lane, behind Wakefield Westgate station, with the first of the arches over Ings Road.

It was armed with this knowledge that artist Tony Wade began his journey to identify, sketch and, of course, count, each of Wakefield’s 99 Arches.

Tony's completed sketch of Wakefield's 99 Arches - all 111 of them. Photo courtesy of Tony Wade

He said: “Like many people I’ve seen this viaduct on a daily basis and never given it much thought.

“This viaduct has been in the background of my paintings but never been featured, so I decided to go and count them.

“The question became where does it start and where does it end? I started at Ings Road and started making my way through Wakefield counting the arches. There’s so many arches, so many bridges.

“You get to Thornes Lane and there’s a lovely stretch where you can walk through the arches in a long line of about 40 of them.

Tony Wade (left) and Kevin Trickett, president of the Wakefield Civic Society, have teamed up to learn more about Wakefield's famous 99 Arches. Photo: Scott Merrylees

“I realised I could give a number but it could be questioned. So I thought the only way to prove it was to provide a drawing of the whole thing.”

Over the course of the next four weeks, Tony managed to visit, photograph and sketch every arch in the viaduct - keeping count as he went.

Though he says there is some room for debate on the exact number of structures in the run - for example, where they have been replaced by bridges, or are built from stone, rather than brick - he has now reached a conclusion on the true length of Wakefield’s 99 Arches.

He said: “From the river to Ings Road there are 111 arches. That’s including stone arches.

“Most are brick, but there’s two bridges made of stone and right in the middle, there’s one span that isn’t an archway.

“There’s one stretch where there’s a diagonal archway so if you go one side you get five and from the other side you count six.

“There’s so many arches, so many bridges. With this art, people can decide how many arches there actually are in the span.”

Though people may debate the length of the viaduct, Kevin says the important thing is simply to keep the interest alive.

He has conducted extensive research into the 99 Arches as research for his new book on the history of Westgate, which will be published later this year.

He said: “It’s a bit of local history. It’s a tall and long one, and a very wide one, and the arches themselves are built of brick.

“Some archways have ovals in the support, but most of the Wakefield ones are solid.

“Where did the name 99 Arches come from? It’s just one of those things.”

The 99 Arches are a piece of incredible local history, and one in which has long since piqued the curiosity of the city’s historians.

Though some details remain shrouded in mystery - Kevin admits a rumour about the viaduct being comprised of 800 million bricks is likely to be an “old wives’ tale”, and would be nearly impossible to prove - much of the structure’s history is well understood.

Kevin said: “It was built to provide a link between Wakefield and Doncaster.

“The first station in Wakefield was Oakenshaw. Trains from London came through Oakenshaw, out to Knottingley and then into Leeds.

“In the early days of steam trains, locomotives couldn’t do hills, so to get into Wakefield would have been a real challenge.

“So you would get off at Oakenshaw and a horse and carriage brought you into Wakefield.

“There were lots of railway companies building lines. There was a link from Kirkgate straight to Leeds that came through Westgate and that’s the beginning of the viaduct.

“But there was still no direct link to Doncaster, so to get from London to Leeds you were still going through this long loop.

“Then the West Riding and Grimsby Railway came along in 1862. They have an Act of Parliament to build a line that connects Westgate to Doncaster.

“At this point they start connecting the viaduct.”