A VICTORIAN railway bridge in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, which was 'filled in' in 2021 following claims it was weak, is set to reopen without a weight restriction or any form of strengthening being needed.

The masonry arch structure at Great Musgrave, engineered by Sir Thomas Bouch in the early 1860s, has been closed for 13 weeks whilst 1,600 tonnes of stone and concrete were removed from around it, having been initially filled in to help support the bridge.

As recently as six weeks ago, National Highways had claimed that it needed to “carry out additional necessary strengthening work so the bridge can continue being used safely by the public”.

However, after a new capacity assessment was completed, the company has said that its “refurbishment work will remove the need for a weight restriction, restoring the bridge to full capacity.”

But according to campaigners, there is no meaningful difference between the condition of the bridge now and how it was before infilling.

“It’s a breath-taking turnaround by National Highways”, says Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group of engineers, heritage campaigners and greenway developers.

“For the past two years, they’ve told anyone who’ll listen that the bridge was weak and infilling was necessary for safety reasons. But this contradicted all the available engineering evidence.

“The new theoretical capacity assessment changes nothing in practical terms. They knew that the bridge was fine - or, at least, they should have - on the basis of inspection insight.

"But they contrived an alternative reality about a potential collapse to justify what, in truth, was an opportunistic act of vandalism for liability reduction purposes, facilitated by the local council’s initial acceptance that the work could be carried out as permitted development.

“It’s been a costly shambles from start to finish and the taxpayer has a right to understand the circumstances.

"The bridge’s return to its rightful place as a historic landscape asset is welcome, but the fact that no strengthening was needed completely undermines National Highways.”

In response, Hélène Rossiter, head of Historical Railways Estate at National Highways said: “Works to Great Musgrave Bridge finished yesterday and the road closure is scheduled to come off no later than Friday at 6pm once associated landscaping works are complete.

“We can confirm the fill material has been removed from beneath the arch and we thank everyone for their patience while we have been on site.

“We believe that infill was a valid solution at Great Musgrave from a safety and ongoing maintenance perspective, but we recognise the strength of feeling about these works, and have removed the infill and refurbished the bridge.

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“We worked to a careful methodology, removing the infill sensitively to conserve Great Musgrave Bridge. Our decisions at the bridge were driven by safety, something we’re passionate about as an organisation.

“A capacity assessment has been completed following these latest works. It confirms that the bridge does not require a weight restriction and is able to carry all types of vehicle.

"To maintain that capacity, ongoing maintenance will be necessary, and an annual inspection.

“The capacity assessment will be available for the public on our website once all work has finished, alongside our final update from this week’s activity on-site.”