Narrow bridges

Fears persist over the fate of old Norfolk railway bridges

11:50 a.m. on December 24, 2021

Campaigners have warned of the uncertain fate of a handful of old railway bridges in Norfolk, which could fall victim to a controversial project that would see them demolished or filled with concrete.

National Highways (NH) has compiled a list of dozens of disused structures across the country that they wish to demolish or backfill, and some in Norfolk have already been lost.

A nationwide outcry against the policy led to the program being halted earlier this year, but activists fear many bridges, including some in the county, are still at risk.

The Heritage Railway Estate (HRE) group, which organizes the defense of the structures, is concerned the program – which NH says is designed to make bridges safer – could resume.

“These are national assets and we have to make the most of them,” said Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the group.

According to NH’s major works schedule for the next five years, two bridges in Norfolk could see work completed.

One is the Leeds Bridge at Themelthorpe, near Reepham, which sits on the so-called Themelthorpe Bend – once the steepest bend in the country’s rail network. It is currently under “structural assessments”, with “maintenance options under development”, according to NH.

Another is at Aldeby, on the old Great Yarmouth line at Beccles. The bridge has been filled on one side, with additional filling pending.

Two bridges in West Norfolk have already been lost recently. It was decided to fill one in Congham, on an old line which ran from King’s Lynn to Fakenham, while another at Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen, on a line from Lynn to Wisbech, was demolished earlier this year .

A bridge at Saxthorpe, near Reepham, on a line from Yarmouth to Melton Constable, was also threatened with filling, but the decision has since been postponed, leaving its fate uncertain.

The refill policy has sparked controversy across the country.

Activists say this can wreak nasty havoc on the countryside and also threatens the work of many restoration groups who want to revive now-defunct train lines.

One of those groups is the Melton Constable Trust (MCT), which hopes to create a Norfolk Orbital Railway from new and old rail lines.

The proposed route of the Norfolk Orbital Railway.
– Credit: Archant

He breathed a sigh of relief earlier this year when it was agreed that a Victorian road bridge at Gateley, near Fakenham, would not be filled.

The bridge runs over the old railway line of a line that ran from Wells to Wymondham and would have proven crucial to the group’s plan.

The Orbital Railway would run from Holt to Dereham on existing lines via Sheringham, Norwich and Wymondham, and on a new section of track via Fakenham to create a loop.

The Gateley road bridge was to be filled by NH, but following discussions with County Council and other groups, a solution was found.

“The County Council was extremely helpful in this regard. They went to great lengths to suggest a solution that would save the system, ”said MCT Director David Bill.

David Bill of Norfolk Orbital Railway believes more people in Norfolk will travel by

David Bill MBE, director of the Melton Constable Trust, which is trying to create a Norfolk Orbital Railway
– Credit: Archant

“To make the bridge safer, they suggest narrowing the roadway on the bridge so that only cars [rather than lorries and larger vehicles] can exceed it.

If these physical restrictions prove to be effective, then NH will not fill the bridge.

A total of 68 old railway bridges across the country could be backfilled or demolished.

What was the Themelthorpe curve?

This bend was once the steepest curve in the UK rail network and connected two separate lines.

The lines had been opened by rival companies before the post-war nationalization of British railways.

The Midland and Great Northern Line had originally joined Norwich with Melton Constable, in north Norfolk, while the Great Eastern Railway line crossed it to connect Wroxham to County School Station, at North Elmham, between Dereham and Fakenham.

Transport - TrainsThemelthorpe Curve opened on September 12, 1960, connecting the Norwich City branch

A boy overlooks the Themelthorpe Bend – pictured on September 11, 1960, the day before the track opens.
– Credit: Archives

Opened in 1960, it was the last section of track built in Norfolk by British Rail, and only saw 25 years of use before it closed in 1985.

The curve was built to allow freight to travel from one side of Norwich to the other without having to go up via Cromer – and it was so sharp that trains were limited to a speed of 10mph when passing through it.

The old curve track is now part of the Marriott’s Way trail and is home to Norfolk’s largest badger set.