Church Road bridge in Barcombe was one of 68 Victorian structures earmarked for infilling or demolition by National Highways as part of its management of the Department for Transport’s Historical Railways Estate. All works were paused by the government in July after the infilling of a masonry arch at Great Musgrave in Cumbria received adverse press attention. That infilling killed aspirations 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 repairs, National Highways had intended to bury the structure within an estimated 1,800 tonnes of aggregate and concrete. Critics said that this would have resulted in the loss of an asset within the village’s conservation area and blocked a wildlife corridor.
In October 2021, 176 residents signed a letter to National Highways expressing opposition to infilling, while Lewes District Council wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps asking for a “full and unequivocal cessation” of the infill policy.
The district council met officials from National Highways and East Sussex County Council on 18th November to discuss the bridge’s condition, traffic usage and ecological issues. On 21st December National Highways announced to stakeholders: “We do not intend to infill this structure”.
It added: “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.”
Local campaign organiser Hazel Fell Rayner 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.”