Historic bridge granted infill reprieve

Campaigners have welcomed National Highways’ commitment to reprieve a historic railway bridge in East Sussex following robust opposition from the community and local council.

Church Road bridge in Barcombe was one of 68 Victorian structures earmarked for infilling or demolition by the state-owned roads company as part of its management of the Department for Transport’s Historical Railways Estate. All works were paused by the Government in July following the controversial infilling of a masonry arch at Great Musgrave, Cumbria, which was needed for a link between two heritage railways.

Carrying a minor road, Barcombe’s bridge was built in the early 1880s as part of a line connecting Lewes and East Grinstead. Its brick parapets and wingwalls have been subject to movement for many years − with cracks recorded as long ago as 1994 − but instead of carrying out appropriate repairs, National Highways had intended to bury the structure within an estimated 1,800 tonnes of aggregate and concrete. This would have resulted in the loss of an asset within the village’s conservation area and blocked a wildlife corridor.

In October, 176 residents sent a letter to National Highways expressing their opposition to infilling, whilst Lewes District Council wrote to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps demanding the “full and unequivocal cessation” of the infill policy.

The Council met officials from National Highways and East Sussex County Council on 18 November to discuss the bridge’s condition, traffic usage and ecological issues. Yesterday (21 December), in an unexpected move, the company told stakeholders “We do not intend to infill this structure”, informing them that “All three organisations are working in partnership to update our knowledge of the use of [the] structure which will inform future options for ensuring the safety of the bridge for the public”.

Hazel Fell Rayner, the local campaign organiser, said: “We’re obviously delighted to hear that National Highways has listened to the views of residents and councillors, heard the strength of feeling locally and lifted the infill threat. From the outset, this was an ill-conceived scheme reflecting a lack of understanding as to the environmental and ecological damage it would have inflicted on a sensitive habitat and its wildlife.

“We now need to ensure that the bridge is repaired sympathetically – reflecting its position within our conservation area as a valued heritage asset – and prevent any reduction in the 20-tonne weight limit currently imposed on vehicles using it. The needs of our farming community must be recognised and we remind council officers that National Highways has an obligation to deliver a capacity of 24 tonnes from this structure. That obligation must be enforced to avert any adverse impact.”

The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – cautiously welcomed the apparent change of approach at Barcombe.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the Group, said: “Over the past few months, National Highways has established its Stakeholder Advisory Forum and developed a draft procedure for determining the most appropriate maintenance option for each structure. Meanwhile, Sustrans has evaluated the active travel potential of the structures currently at risk from infill or demolition. Alongside the reprieve for Barcombe, these represent substantive steps in a better direction and we look forward to many other bridges being granted a stay of execution as a result.

“Unfortunately the cultural vandalism at Great Musgrave will continue to hang like a millstone around National Highways’ neck until it does the right thing and removes the infill there. We urge the company to do so soon. There are however early signs that 2022 could see National Highways adopt a more positive and collaborative approach to the Historical Railways Estate. These are national assets and we need to derive the greatest possible benefit from them.”

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