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1971: Too many sighs at a bridge - 50 years on

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

The Bailey Bridge seen from below provided a lifeline for the locals

Speak to any local resident of the time over the age of 60 and they will remember the crisis of the collapse and closure of the A272 road at High Bridge, between Cuckfield and Ansty 50 years ago.

It was caused by a structural failure of the William lV road bridge (1835), designed to take the weight of stage coach traffic. This caused a crisis with long detours via Isaacs Lane and the A23.

The Sunday Mirror ran a spirited account about Cuckfield's battle to get a temporary 'Bailey bridge' just a month after it had happened:

'Four weeks ago a bridge collapsed near Cuckfield in Sussex.

'Cuckfield is where Oliver Cromwell won his first victory over the Royalists in 1642 [Ed: Not exactly!]. They hardly expected to have to fight another battle but they did.

'This bridge, you see was rather important to them. It is not the only way into Cuckfield but it represents the main source of traffic.

'And thus the livelihood of the village. The shop keepers found trade depended enormously on the bridge.

After the collapse - one took only £1 in one week. A publican sold only two shandies on one day.

'So, you would think someone would do something. Put up a temporary bridge perhaps while a new one was built.

The old bridge structure before demolition, held up by brick cross-bracing

'The Government said No. They would give 75%, of the cost of a new’ bridge, nothing towards a temporary one. The East Sussex County Council would not help either.

'The town would have to remain a sort of cul-de-sac for six months at least and probably a rear, the way things are. So, off on the dreary trail. Protest meetings, A thousand signatures on a petition, taken to the House of Commons.

'The National Chamber of Trade canvassed and its support won. Loudspeaker tours rallying support. Face to face with council members a the bridge.

'Result: The Government will consider a grant for a temporary bridge! The council has promised a Balley bridge within the month. It used to be Cavalier and Roundheads. Now it is fatheads and commonsense.'

Sunday Mirror 21 March 1971


The yellow road marks the new alignment of the road and the black lines show the stretch where a culvert now replaces the bridge

The Independent State of Cuckfield website recalls it like this:

'In 1971 the High Bridge on the A272 between Cuckfield and Ansty collapsed. Ansty was extremely worried at being cut off from shops, Doctors, Hospital etc. The county council refused to consider a temporary bridge and said people must wait for a permanent replacement. However Cuckfield's Mayor [George Stevenson, was the 5th mayor, and in his second term in 1971] contacted them and persuaded them to change their mind and a 'Bailey Bridge' was duly put in place.'

Looking north from the collapsed bridge

Being able to get an army REME team to install a Bailey Bridge was a huge step forward. But although it opened the road it limited traffic to alternate directions controlled by traffic lights. This allowed a trickle of traffic to get through, but it did little to help the complainants, who continued to air their grievances until the road was fully re-opened.

The culvert, photo taken 2014

This had been the first major project that the Independent State had tackled - the next one would be a battle of a different sort when the Sealed Knot 'invaded' on the village and reenacted the 'Battle of Cuckfield' in July 1971.

Maisie Wright in 'A Chronicle of Cuckfield' (updated version, 1991) recalled the bridge hiatus like this:

'In 1971, the high-arched red brick bridge, built in 1835, which took the A272 across the valley of the Laine Brook, collapsed and the road was impassable for some months, to the distress and inconvenience of residents in Ansty and to the detriment of trade in Cuckfield. After a vociferous public meeting in the village to protest at the delay, the County Council erected a Bailey Bridge. Eventually the road was rebuilt, re-aligned and widened, and the picturesque brook diverted through a culvert under the road.'

The site photographs shown here were taken by Cyril Pike which have been restored by the author.

The Culvert photo from Geograph

The road today gives no clue of its troubled past 50 years ago. A buried culvert replaces the bridge, giving long term peace of mind

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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