Bridge over troubled waters
In June this year a bridge over the River Yeo vanished. It left a big hole in a footpath whose history dates back into the mists of and a row over who is responsible to put it back...
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Battle of Mudford Bridge
The footpath that leads from Mudford, across Hinton Weir to the hamlet of Hinton has a history that it is claimed, dates back to before the Norman conquest. Because these days footpaths must be numbered, if not named, Somerset Council have designated it Footpath Y18/1.
It was once a prized footpath for pedestrians being the only way to reach Hinton from Mudford without using the very busy A359. A road that has become even busier since the roadworks started on the A303.
Along the footpath is a bridge over Hinton Weir, a weir that is not without some historical interest. It was built in 1801 by the geologist William Smith who was famous for creating the first geological map of Britain. Smith who was working on the Somerset Coal Canal, was employed by the Goodford family to build a mill at Hinton.
However the weir today is not in a great condition, as the photo below illustrates.
On 7 January 2020 Somerset Council instituted what it described as a “temporary closure” for the footpath. Specifically it was closed for the stretch that crosses the River Yeo at Hinton Weir Bridge. But with no other crossing of the river possible, it has effectively shut down the whole footpath. The closure order has been renewed regularly.
On 12 January this year Somerset County Council (which became Somerset Council on 1 April) issued a further edict. Footpath Y18/1 will remain closed until at least 9 January 2024. That will mean the footpath has been closed for 4 years. Hardly what you might call temporary.
But then over the summer, matters moved one step further and the bridge was removed. Two public petitions have been launched since protesting at the removal. Mudford and Hinton are small communities so the fact that one attracted over 250 signatures and the other over 150 is not insignificant.
It turns out that the bridge was removed on the instruction of Mudford Parish Council. It is currently being stored on private land. The word “Stored” appears to be a euphemism for being left out in all weathers.
What exactly has been going on? Why would the Somerset Council want to put the safety of the public at risk by closing the footpath and forcing them to walk alongside a busy A Road? And why was the bridge removed at all?
The original footpath closure notice from 2020 gives us some clues.
It explains that the bridge over Hinton Weir is unauthorised and that the weir structure is unsafe. Unauthorised feels a little over pedantic but unsafe is obviously a concern. The weir lies at the point where a mill stream (that has been diverted from the River Yeo to the north) rejoins the River Yeo.
It turn’s out there is a long history between Somerset County Council, Mudford Parish Council and Footpath Y18/1. The original bridge over Hinton Weir was removed by Somerset County Council in 2012. This was after surveys revealed problems with the structure of the weir. As you can see from the photo of the new bridge in situ (see above), it sat (until it was removed) on three pillars coming up from the weir.
If the structure of the weir was unsound, there would be a risk to the integrity of the bridge which sat on top of it.
So Mudford Parish Council voted funds to buy and maintain a replacement bridge. Despite this, Somerset County Council closed the footpath citing safety concerns relating to the weir and bridge. By July 2020 Mudford parish Council was seeking clarification as to what they could do and precisely what reservations the council had.
By September 2020 the Parish Council had voted £4,500 of public money to make repairs and for maintenance.
the Parish Council had voted £4,500 of public money to make repairs
Good things were happening. Works were carried out at the weir, with The Cook Trust, neighbouring landowners and many volunteers involved. Some of whom had offered their services free of charge. All they needed now was for Somerset County Council to complete an inspection and allow the final commissioning of the bridge.
In the meantime anyone crossing was doing so at their own risk.
What followed was three years of protracted negotiation between the Parish Council, The County Council, the Rights of Way Officer and the occasional intervention of the late Cllr Mike Lewis to try and move things along. The Parish Council wanted to see the surveyors report. they wanted to understand what the problems were. But reading the minutes from back then - it doesn‘t sound as if they got much back.
Meanwhile a bridge paid for with a sizeable chunk of public money was technically closed and the footpath rendered unusable.
Then in January this year Mudford’s Parish Clerk recommended that the bridge be removed. She cited problems with the Parish Council’s public liability insurance. Discussions started about how to do that as cheaply as possible.
By the February 2023 meeting of the council, Heras fencing to truncate the footpath on either side of the weir was agreed. The Parish Council agreed that the bridge would be removed by 1 July as its installation did not comply with the criteria set down in their Public Liability Insurance.
By March discussions were still going on with the landowners and Somerset County Council. But Mudford Parish Council had spent £355 on padlocks, fencing and signage. The bridge was still there, but its days were looking numbered.
Over the summer the bridge was removed at a cost of £1,980 paid to P Denning and Sons.
Leaving a situation where in the space of four years Mudford Parish Council has paid towards a bridge, paid to maintain the bridge in situ and then paid to have the bridge taken away. Costs that appear to be getting close to £10,000
Throughout four years of rambling negotiations, Somerset County Council have agreed that a new bridge over the River Yeo - if not necessarily at Hinton Weir - was a high priority. Yet have been able to do nothing beyond doggedly insist that the existing one be removed.
An historic weir that dates to the start of the 19th century, built by one of our most famous geologists, has been allowed to get into a state of disrepair. At least according to the various structural surveys carried out by Somerset County Council. It is apparently not listed by Heritage England.
Somerset County Council insist that it is not their responsibility to maintain the weir, but acknowledge that it is their responsibility to maintain the right of way. The council say that responsibility for repairing the weir rests with the landowners.
If any new crossing of the river is to be found to maintain the footpath, it will also require agreements from the landowners.
And if a new crossing is to be found and the footpath diverted, then at what cost? A new bridge with abutments, secured to the river banks and with all the right health and safety approvals. Plus the costs of getting consent from landowners. How much would that cost? Realistically we suggest a figure north of £50,000.
And as we have reported, the council is on the verge of insolvency, possibly having to file a s114 notice as early as February. Under those circumstances any new bridge is unlikely to see the light of day.
Leaving footpath Y18/1 as a redundant right of way for years to come.
Somerset Council today blame the complex negotiations with all parties for not coming up with a solution. That is to an extent understandable. But actually that argument misses the point. Even if the bridge provided by the Parish Council was never up to scratch, it remains a red herring.
The fact is that Somerset County Council removed the old bridge on their own initiative in 2012. In the 13 years since then they have achieved nothing in terms of maintaining the right of way - which it is their legal responsibility to maintain.
in the 13 years since then they have achieved nothing
And the only organisation to make a constructive effort to restore the right of way, Mudford Parish Council, have been thwarted in their efforts. Perhaps they were wrong to try? But that does not let Somerset County Council off the hook for 11 years of failure.
We asked Somerset Council for a comment on the current status of the footpath Y18/1 and a bridge over Hinton Weir. They told us: “Somerset Council is responsible for maintaining this footpath, and we are trying to resolve this as soon as possible, however the situation is complicated.
The weir which sits underneath the footbridge is privately maintainable and has some structural defects which need to be repaired before a suitable footbridge can be installed, allowing the Council to safely reopen the footpath.”
Which confirms everything we have learned about the status quo from our own researches into the saga. They then added: “In order to reopen the footpath there are two options, either to divert the public footpath or for those with responsibility for maintaining the weir to carry out full repair works to a standard fit to carry a footbridge and for Somerset Council to then install this once these works are complete. The new footbridge would meet all current design criteria for footbridges and public footpaths. This option would require a new structural survey of all parts of the weir, including the underwater sections and associated walls. Our team has been engaging with the parish council, landowners and other interested parties to discuss these options.”
Perhaps it is time for the various engagements to be brought to some sort of conclusion?
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