Specialist divers surveying Shaldon Bridge after discovery pier is made of rotting wood

Specialist divers are surveying Shaldon Bridge after a shock discovery found that one of the main supporting piles is made of deteriorating wood and not the concrete and steel construction shown on the original plans.

Devon County Council has imposed weight restrictions on vehicles heavier than three tonnes using the bridge while professionals check to see if any other piers also have wooden piles.

Cllr Alistair Dewhirst, the Devon County Councillor for Shaldon, said that ‘fingers-crossed’ the bridge would be re-open to all traffic by the end of the week, if the divers find nothing else wrong with the bridge.

Specialist divers working on Shaldon Bridge
Specialist divers working on Shaldon Bridge

But he also raised concerns, echoed by the village, that more signage is needed as some people are ignoring the restrictions.

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Cllr Dewhirst said: “The residents are aggrieved that although most people are abiding by the restriction, other people are not. And they are unhappy that Devon County Council do not appear to have put the signs in the right place.

Signs of Work in progress at Shaldon Bridge after it was discovered one of the supporting piles was timber, not steel.
Signs of Work in progress at Shaldon Bridge after it was discovered one of the supporting piles was timber, not steel.

“I emphasised to the highways department the importance of effective signage at both ends of the bridge, but it appears there are no signs coming from Newton Abbot through Teignmouth at the bridge about the weight limit.

“There is great concern in the community that some people are ignoring the weight limits. I am trying to get more and improved signage, and I am trying to get more enforcement, but it is difficult as the council don’t have the manpower or the legal force to stop people who are breaking the limit.”

However, he added that if the engineers thought the bridge was dangerous, then they would have closed the bridge to all traffic.

Cllr Dewhirst added: “If the divers and engineers find nothing else wrong with the bridge, then the restrictions will be removed, and it is hoped this could happen by the end of the week.”

Signs of Work in progress at Shaldon Bridge after it was discovered one of the supporting piles was timber, not steel.
Signs of Work in progress at Shaldon Bridge after it was discovered one of the supporting piles was timber, not steel.

The focus of the investigation by divers is on the five piers in the deep-water channel. Because the piers are permanently submerged inspections are extremely difficult and can only be carried out by commercial diving contractors.

The inspection can only take place this the neap tide this week to ensure that the flow of water is not too great for the divers to safely work, although there is only a two-hour maximum working window.

Questions have been raised as to why previous inspections of Shaldon Bridge failed to identify that the pile was made of bridge, but Cllr Dewhirst said that it appeared the contractors who rebuild the bridge between 1927 and 1931 did some ‘jiggery-pokery’ compared to the drawings they were supposed to use.

Specialist divers working on Shaldon Bridge
Specialist divers working on Shaldon Bridge

He said: “Shaldon Bridge’s original construction drawings show that the bridge’s piers are each made up of four concrete piles, which are encased in steel and concrete.

“However, the inspection revealed that one of the piles inside a pier was made from timber instead of concrete, which has started to deteriorate. Previous inspections have confirmed concrete piles on other piers, but as they are deep under the waterline and in fast moving water, not all the piles were checked when the work was last done.

“The engineers relied on the original drawings, but it seems they were not correct and there was some ‘jiggery-pokery’ by the contractors when they rebuilt the bridge.”

Shaldon Bridge was the longest wooden bridge in England when it opened in June 1827, but after 11 years, the centre timber arches of the bridge collapsed, eaten through by shipworms.

It was rebuilt in wood and reopened in 1840, but it partially collapsed again in 1893.

Shaldon Bridge looking up the Teign Estuary
Shaldon Bridge looking up the Teign Estuary

The bridge was completely rebuilt between 1927 and 1931.

At that stage it was reported that steel was used for the piers and main girders and concrete for most of the deck, except for the opening span which used timber.

The temporary three-tonne weight restriction means that all vehicles over three tonnes are banned indefinitely – except for emergency vehicles and the winter gritters.

This includes double-decker buses, and Stagecoach have not taken up an option to run a single-decker bus across the bridge that would have been exempt, and Teignbridge’s recycling lorries, who have been re-routed during the disruption.

Specialist divers working on Shaldon Bridge
Specialist divers working on Shaldon Bridge

Cllr Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways Management, said: “I want to reassure residents that the overall condition of the structure is good, and the weight restriction is purely a precaution.

“The bridge is inspected regularly and is safe to use. It is essential however that drivers of vehicles that exceed the limit abide by the restrictions and use the signed diversion route.

“At this stage we do not know how long the weight restriction will be in place and it is dependent on what the inspection finds.”

Devon County Council has said that they are improving the restriction signage around the bridge.