ONE of our area’s most curious bridges is in the headlines, much as it was in 1904 when it opened. Only now it is in the headlines because it is shut.

Witton Park road bridge needs £5.6m to repair it and when Durham County Council only has allocated £2m-a-year to repairing all 300 road bridges in its domain, the sums don’t add up. However, there are cheaper alternatives: £2.5m would allow the bridge to reopen with weight restrictions, and £1.6m would allow it to reopen as a ‘bridleway bridge’.

And if the bridge were to close it forever, it would cost £1m to take away and sort out the roads.

But the bridge, which is on the C93 and effectively connects Bishop Auckland with Crook, has always been expensive. When it opened on Tuesday, August 24, 1904, The Northern Echo said the metalwork – it is made of Siemen’s Marten steel with 6.5ft thick girders – had cost £3,230 and the construction of the approach road had cost £2,230. That’s a total of £650,000 in today’s values, according to the Bank of England Inflation calculator.

“It has been an expensive undertaking but it is such a great public improvement that expense becomes a secondary consideration,” said the North-Eastern Gazette.

Campaigners gathered at County Hall on Wednesday in a bid to get the council to see the bigger picture. In 1904, the Echo said: “The new road will benefit a population of 47,000.” It counted Crook, Bishop Auckland and every community from Evenwood in the south to Brandon in the north.

Beyond pounds, shillings and pence, there is oddity value. This bridge is one of only four in the country that threads its way through the legs of a railway viaduct.

And in times past, it was odder still. A third bridge, a footbridge, was also attached to it making a conglomeration of crossings – it was called “the land of the three bridges”.

Man has forded the Wear at this remote point since time immemorial. When he got tired of wading across a flood-swollen river, he threw a footbridge across it.

In 1843, the railway from Bishop Auckland to Crook came tottering across the river on a timber bridge high above the footbridge. The arrival of the railway prompted the discovery of iron ore at Paradise Fields and in 1847, Messrs Bolckow and Vaughan opened the north’s first ironworks. No longer remote, a village of terraced houses called Witton Park sprung up. Within three years, 1,200 men were employed in the ironworks – this was a boomtown.

With great industry all around it, in 1854, the timber railway crossing was replaced by the five arch stone bridge which still stands. Its abutments were used to support the footbridge.

The iron boom came to an abrupt end in 1882 with the closure of the Paradise works, plunging Witton Park into an economic decline which it took generations to turn around. The narrow footbridge was regarded as a bottleneck and in 1904, a cart-sized road bridge was built underneath the railway arches.

Brandishing a pair of silver scissors, the chairman of Auckland Rural Council, John Thornborough, said the bridge had been “a crying want for many years”. He then cut the tape and a procession headed by the council traction engine went across.

“The total length is 254ft, and it is built to carry a moving load of 25 tons on four wheels at one-third of its breaking strain,” said the Echo.

“The bridge and road are a credit to the council and their surveyor, Mr Thomas Heslop,” said the Echo.

Indeed, Mr Heslop had come up with a most ingenious solution to the bottleneck with the road bridge clinging to the taller railway bridge’s abutments and the footbridge somehow hanging off the side.

On the opening day, no one much bothered with the ingenuity as the large crowd processed up to Witton Park Schools for a luncheon and some speechifying in which they toasted “the county council” for making a generous donation of £1,000 towards the bridge-building.

More than 100 years later, residents hope they will have cause to toast the council again – this time for repairing this most curious of bridges.

  • We think the footbridge was taken down in the 1970s