Campaigners celebrate victory over controversial bridge infilling scheme
The government roads maintenance agency created controversy in May 2021 when, without warning, it buried the 1862 bridge at Great Musgrave near Kirkby Stephen with some 1,600 tonnes of gravel and concrete at a price tag of nearly £125,000. At the time, it was claimed that the bridge was unable to support axle loadings above 17 tonnes with the somewhat optimistic requirement, given the bridge’s idyllic rural location, for 44 tonnes suitability to be attained.
Local campaigners countered that the bridge was in no imminent danger of collapse and that only minor repointing work was needed to ensure its ongoing fitness for purpose. Infilling, especially without due consultation, was a highly disproportionate measure, not least because it prevented two heritage railways in Cumbria that use parts of the old railway formation passing under the bridge from ever linking up in future.
The Eden Valley Railway
The original Eden Valley Railway opened in 1862 with a passenger station at Musgrave (to serve the village of Great Musgrave) opening with the line, although passenger traffic in this sparsely populated region was very much an afterthought. The main purpose of the line was to carry iron ore from Cumbria and Lancashire to the blast furnaces of North East England, and in the other direction coal and coke from the Durham mines to the North West of England. It afforded a shorter route for these purposes than the contemporary alternative route, via Newcastle to Carlisle and thence Penrith and Tebay.
The railway led a somewhat unremarkable life until British Railways began to close the intermediate passenger stations on the route, beginning with Musgrave itself on 3 November 1952. The demise of the Teesside steel industry and the phasing out of coal and coke as both domestic and industrial fuels saw most of the line closed and removed by the end of the 1960s. The route of the railway through Great Musgrave lay derelict and gradually returned to nature, although the station building survives as a private residence.
New owners Highways England – bad news for preservationists’ ambitions
At the Southern end of the former Eden Valley, the Stainmore Railway Company of preservationists established a base of operations at Kirkby Stephen East station with a short length of track. To the North, a much longer section of the line survived for transportation of tanks to a military base until 1989 and this subsequently became the base of the Eden Valley Railway society of preservationists who operate heritage train services over some 2.5 miles of track.
The respective preservation groups retained a long-term ambition to meet up, although a significant barrier is the demolition of the viaduct across the River Eden just south of Musgrave. Highways England, as they then were, suddenly appeared on the scene with other plans.
Following the privatisation of the railways in the UK, the ownership of non-operational railway land and structures which were seen to have no future railway use was eventually transferred to Highways England, a government-owned company responsible for operating, maintaining and improving major ‘A’ roads and motorways in England.
The infilling of Great Musgrave Bridge: an act of “vandalism”
Great Musgrave Bridge was included in this – just another disused railway overbridge requiring periodic attention. That ‘periodic attention’ came to Great Musgrave Bridge, seemingly chosen at random by Highways England for infilling, with work completed in late June 2021.
Highways England claimed the bridge needed filling in for safety reasons and that they would be happy to later remove the infill material at no cost to the railway preservationists should the aim to link the two heritage operations ever come to fruition. Local people were not impressed, and nor were representatives of the HRE Group which campaigns for sustainable transport solutions and greenways. They were quick to label Highways England’s actions “vandalism” but it seemed the battle had already been lost.
Planning committee verdict: harm outweighs benefit
Highways England had however neglected to seek planning permission for their actions and carried on by invoking emergency powers despite Eden District Council recommending that the infill work stop whilst planning consent was obtained.
After receiving 913 objections and two expressions of support for the retrospective planning application to infill the bridge, the council formally refused planning permission at a hearing on 16 June 2022 and ordered Highways England that was rebranded in August 2021 to National Highways, subsequently to remove the concrete infill.
Eden District Green Party councillor Ali Ross expressed concern at the loss of a wildlife corridor under the bridge and planning committee chairman William Patterson noted how the work adversely affected bats that had taken up roosting below the bridge arch.
The overall view of the planning committee was that:
“The project results in considerable harm to the visual appearance of the bridge as a single span arch structure and fails to complement or enhance the area or protect features or characteristics of local importance… The stated public benefit, in terms of reduced cost to the public purse in the long term, compared to more sympathetic repair and reinforcement, is not considered sufficient to outweigh this harm.”
Extra reasons to celebrate
Campaigners have extra reasons to celebrate following the decision, as National Highways developed new methods to assess the abandoned railway structures it controls with experts from heritage, environmental and active travel sectors now to be consulted and with infill now a tactic of last resort.
North West Bylines readers are highly encouraged to visit both of the industrial heritage preservation groups operating on the formation of the former Eden Valley Railway and you can monitor the progress on restoring the bridge to its former glory by following its Twitter account.
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