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Engineers repairing famous Tarr Steps clapper bridge applaud 3,000-year-old design

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 13, 2013

  • Like constructing a giant 3D jigsaw, the massive two-ton slabs that make up Tarr Steps clapper bridge are put back together PICTURE: MARTIN HESP

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One of the oldest bridges in the country, which was smashed to pieces in recent floods, will be in use again within the next fortnight.

Having now located all the missing slabs of stone, engineers began work yesterday on renovating Exmoor's popular Tarr Steps clapper bridge which was almost completely destroyed after being swept away just before Christmas.

And in rebuilding the ancient structure they found time to praise the original engineers who built Tarr Steps as many as 3,000 years ago.

"It's an extremely sensible structure for a river like this – it comes apart every now and again – and it goes back together again at a cost of £10,000, whereas to cross this river with a new footbridge would cost over half a million pounds," said Somerset county councillor for Dulverton and Exmoor, Frances Nicholson.

"It makes good economic sense because it's an ancient monument – a listed structure – that we are required to put back," she added.

Kenny Higgins, principle contractor for Somerset-based Crestmoor Construction, is in charge of the reconstruction work. "We've got experience of this site – four years ago the bridge lost three piers which we repaired," he told the WMN. "But this time we are using a special coffer dam to help with the conditions. Last time we were struggling with water flows even though it was summer, so this helps with our work and also helps protect the ecology."

Peter Radford, Somerset County Council's bridge manager, added: "Because we're working at this time of year when there are salmon we've used the coffer dam as an extra precaution. Basically it's a big tube full of water that deflects the river. So if there is any disturbance it doesn't go downstream."

Mr Radford said the 180ft-long bridge was the oldest in Somerset and that it could even be as much as 3,000 years old, but he explained that it had been designed to deal with strong river flows. However, it was a number of large fallen trees swept downstream by a 10ft wall of floodwater that had done the damage during the recent inundation. These had snapped the steel hawsers of the tree-catcher structure 400 metres above the clapper-bridge.

"We are replacing the tree-boom and making it slightly stronger than it was before," said Mr Radford. "Some of the trees that came floating down here were very big indeed. Some seasoned locals have told us this was the worst flood in 60 years.

"Our team has now completed the search for the missing stones and they haven't gone too far – we only had to go about 10 to 15 metres before we found the last one. Rather amazingly, one of the largest stones – span number seven, which weighs about two and a half tons – has been moved furthest.

"We're keen to put it back together as quickly as we can. "It will be walk-able again in less than two weeks – hopefully one week – but, obviously, it is a weather-dependent job," said Mr Radford.

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