IT is 30 years ago since a Second World War Spitfire was flown underneath a bridge over the River Tees. At 250mph, the plane skimmed just a couple of feet above the tea-brown Tees in a daring stunt for a TV programme.

Sturdy Winston Bridge had seen nothing like it in its 250-year history.

The pilot of the plane on July 7, 1988, was Ray Hanna, 60, a founder member of the Red Arrows display team who owned the 1943 Supermarine Spitfire.

The stunt was for a London Weekend Television adaption of Derek Robinson’s novel, A Piece of Cake, about Second World War RAF pilots.

In France, in the early days of the war, the pilots showed off their derring-do by flying their Hurricanes under low bridges, and Winston, although not in France, was chosen for the re-enactment.

Winston was presumably chosen for the width of its single span arch: 111ft (34 metres). When it opened in September 1763, having taken five years to build, the bridge was hailed as the widest span anywhere in Europe.

Video: A longer clip from the TV show, A Piece of Cake, as Ray Hanna flies a Spitfire under Winston Bridge

Indeed, the first builder of the bridge, a Mr Johnson of Wolsingham, became so concerned that the span would collapse under its own weight that he fled from the project in dismay, and it fell to the head mason, a Mr Green from Hexham, to complete the job.

The bridge was designed by Sir Thomas Robinson (1702-77) of Rokeby Park who, by happy coincidence, was encountered in a previous article as one of his smaller properties, Mortham Tower, is currently on the market. That article can be read here

Sir Thomas was an amateur architect, and Winston was the first bridge he appears to have attempted, so perhaps one can understand Mr Johnson’s lack of confidence. He should not have doubted Sir Thomas because in 2002, when the maximum weight of lorries was increased from 17 tonnes to 40 tonnes, Durham County Council set aside £250,000 to strengthen Winston bridge.

However, after £7,000-worth of analysis, it was decided that the bridge was strong enough, and stable enough, to withstand anything the hauliers could drive over it.

At first glance, Winston – which is a staging post on the east/west A67 road from Darlington to Barnard Castle – appears a strange place to have such a large and expensive bridge.

But it was built as part of the north/south turnpike road which was created to carry coal from Staindrop to market in Richmond. Turnpikes were late 18th Century privatised roads. The government allowed a group of local investors to take control of a road and charge people per mile to use it as long as some of the proceeds were ploughed back into maintaining the road.

So that is how the money was raised to build Winston bridge.

The road is now the B6274 and all along its route are reminders of its turnpike origins. A little south of Staindrop at Alwent is Toll Bar Cottage, and on the south bank of the Tees is a hamlet called Winston Gate. This is where there were barriers across the road and tolls were collected from users.

Turnpike roads had to have mile markers placed upon them to remind users that they were on pay roads and to enable them to calculate their dues. The first mile markers in the late 18th Century were made of stone and they were replaced by metal mileposts in the late 19th Century. Milestones can be seen dotted along the B6274 on either side of Winston bridge and a mile south of it at Hillcrest Park, which is at the top of Berry Bank near Pudding Hill, both the stone and the metal markers survive in a mile marker oddity.

WE’VE struggled to work out the true place of Winston bridge in the world’s single span bridge league table.

There are lots of single span suspension bridges, particularly in China, which are much longer, but we’ll discount them as they are suspension bridges.

In 1829, Thomas Telford built what was then described as the world’s longest single span bridge over a canal at Smethwick in the West Midlands. Galton Bridge is 151ft long, but it is cast iron, so we’ll discount that, too.

In 1922, the Pont de la Liberation was completed at Villeneuve-sur-Lot in France. At 315ft long, it is described as the world’s longest single span, but it is made up of masonry and a lot of concrete, so that seems like unfair competition for Winston’s stonework.

The longest single span non-suspension bridge in Britain is currently said to be the Scammonden Bridge, which is that gorgeous “rainbow bridge” over the M62 at Kirklees – anyone who has driven over the Pennines to Manchester must have remarked upon it. It was opened in 1970 and is 656ft and is entirely concrete, so it can’t be in the same league as Winston’s masonry.

Perhaps Sir Thomas’ bridge is still in a league of its own.