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UK Newburn Culvert, Newburn - February 2016

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Newburn Culvert, located underneath a block of flats known as Spencer Court, was originally built on land owned by the Duke of Northumbria sometime in the mid-1800s. The culvert was a traditional brick Victorian structure. On the 17th May 2012, after heavy rainfall, a large 6 metre wide hole appeared in Millfield Lane, in Newburn. Teams were immediately deployed to uncover why a hollow had appeared. After initial examinations of the area had been conducted, an old privately owned culvert was discovered. A few days later, on 20th May, a number of pumps were installed, to reduce the water level in around ‘The Winnings’ (a small valley that can be found further upstream).

Although immediate repair work was set in motion, extremely bad weather throughout the summer months, especially on 28th June when a severe storm occurred. A few weeks earlier the pumps that had been installed were already becoming overwhelmed by the amount of water accumulating in the valley. A number of houses in the area, including Spencer Court and several cars, were subsequently flooded during the early hours on 10th June. The next day the flats were evacuated by the police, as they were identified as being ‘high risk’. Eighteen days later, the citywide storm hit Newcastle. Though more pumps had been set up, the water in ‘The Winnings’ soon broke its banks, resulting in the flooding of Spencer Court once again; this time up to the second floor. Over 50mm of rain fell within a two hour period; the Environment Agency reported that it was the largest storm Newcastle had experienced since the 1900s. In anticipation that a major storm was heading towards the city, a number of sandbags had been deployed, prior to the incident. Although they did prevent more serious damage from occurring, a further nine properties within the area were evacuated on a precautionary basis. Once again the police assisted in the withdrawal of residents.

Following another period of heavy rainfall on 25th September 2012, all of the remaining blocks of Spencer Court were successfully evacuated. Floodwater managed to hollow out the ground beneath a number of the flats, severely damaging the foundations and exposing a number of supporting pillars. Newburn High Street was also closed in the wake of another lower culvert breach. According to ‘the extreme events scrutiny review’, what initially seemed like a reasonably straightforward task soon escalated into a major incident. There were disruptions to the electrical supply in the surrounding area, damage to a major water and gas mains and, as is well known, Spencer Court was partially demolished. When it was discovered that six inches of subsidence had taken place within many of the flats engineers agreed that the some of the premises should be dismantled.

After the downpours approximately forty million litres (8.7 million gallons) of water was pumped out of the area. Teams were forced to work twenty four hours a day to rectify the situation and carry out the necessary repairs to the heavily damaged culvert. Over 140 tonnes of ‘high-tec grout’ was used to stabilise the ground above and around the culvert. Following this an estimated three hundred tonnes of displaced soil was excavated and a new concrete section of culvert was promptly installed. A further 125 metre concrete structure was also built over the non-collapsed section of the culvert that is located on Northumberland Estate land. According to the ‘extreme events scrutiny report’, in cases such as this, where public property is damaged and unstable, people are generally not permitted to return to collect valuables and personal belongings. In this instance, however, the council granted access to the site, so people were able to retrieve some of their possessions before the buildings were razed. Throughout the whole disaster neither Northumberland Estates, or Dunelm Homes, admitted responsibility for the collapse, although the Duke of Northumberland is reported to have paid more than £10 million to help repair the culvert and provide support to those who lost their homes. 

Our Version of Events

Newburn culvert has always been something we wanted to see, but up until now we’d never managed to get it done completely. Anyway, a few years on from the disaster and things have changed considerably in this area; half of Spencer Court is gone and the culvert has had lots of new concrete added to it. Since the storms are long gone now, we decided to finally get down there and take a look. This report, then, is made up from photographs from a few different visits.

As we first approached the culvert, it looked like an ordinary, classic, culvert… boring. The bridge at the beginning wasn’t too bad, but it looked as though we were about to encounter a lot of concrete. Nevertheless, we’d spent five minutes getting here so we decided to persevere and have a look inside anyway. As we first entered the water reached about knee depth because it was silty as fuck; before we’d taken our first few steps it hadn’t looked too bad. Much to our surprise we were met by a number of large pipes, so we had a bit of ducking and diving to do pretty much straight away. Inside this section it was obvious that many parts of the culvert have been reinforced, although there was a fair bit of debris covering the floor.

Further on, it was clear that some parts of the brick floor had sunk, which made the whole thing a bit uneven to walk on. The water was fast flowing at this point, but was beginning to get much shallower. The brickwork in this section was good, a classic Victorian type of structure, so we spent a while trying to take photographs here. Finished trying to capture the brickwork, after a bit more walking, we were suddenly overwhelmed by the sound of running water. It had been getting louder and louder up to this point, but we hadn’t expected to turn a corner and find such a large waterfall; not under Newcastle at any rate. Stood at the base of it, you could barely hear yourself think, it was almost impossible to hear anything.

Climbing the waterfall was a wet experience, as you might imagine, and a bit of a tricky task in waders. After a bit of slipping and sliding, we found ourselves inside a new corrugated metal tube which felt quite big. It almost felt like a slipway rather than a culvert since the water was so shallow, but it ended after 20 metres or so. Next, we reached the section that had collapsed back in 2012. Concrete galore! Boring as fuck… A large concrete inspection chamber greeted us a few minutes later though, and it was immaculately clean. There wasn’t a single piece of rubbish or dirt in here which was quite amazing to see. From the chamber, up the end of the culvert, it was basically the same type of structure throughout, until we reached the inflow and a large metal box grill.

Explored with Ford Mayhem and Husky.












































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