A public inquiry to determine the fate of a historic railway bridge has heard it was "unlawfully almost totally destroyed" by being filled in with tonnes of concrete.

A four-day hearing is under way in King's Lynn to decide whether National Highways will have to remove the material it poured under the crossing at Congham, near the town.

The 'infill' on the 1920s bridge outraged heritage campaigners and West Norfolk Council turned down a retrospective planning application from the government agency in October.

Weeks later, it issued an enforcement notice for National Highways to reverse the work.

However, the agency lodged an appeal, sparking this week's public inquiry.

Eastern Daily Press: The bridge at Congham after it was filled inThe bridge at Congham after it was filled in (Image: HRE Group)

As the hearing began at the Duke's Head Hotel in Lynn, government planning inspector Laura Renaudon clarified the appeal was against the enforcement notice issued in November, not the earlier decision to refuse planning permission for the work.

Miss Renaudon added she wished to understand the significance of the bridge, which was constructed in the 1920s.

In his opening speech Martin Carter, a barrister representing National Highways said it was appealing on two grounds.

Eastern Daily Press: Government planning inspector Laura RenaudonGovernment planning inspector Laura Renaudon (Image: Chris Bishop)

He said the first was that it should have been given planning permission to carry out the work. 

The second was that the compliance period set out in the council's enforcement notice was too short.

Mr Carter added the bridge was of "low" historic and aesthetic value, while its structure was deteriorating.

He said there was "significant public benefit" in securing the load-carrying capacity of the bridge.

Eastern Daily Press: The bridge at Congham before it was filled in The bridge at Congham before it was filled in (Image: Richard Humphrey)

Timothy Leader, for the council, said: "This is a case about the conservation of a historic railway bridge which has been unlawfully almost totally destroyed by the appellant.

"The issue to be decided is whether they should be compelled to restore it, their having admitted that restoration is practicable if its appeal is dismissed and the council's enforcement notice is upheld."

He added the structure was of local archaeological value and had been an attractive feature in the landscape, which "conjured up an image of a bygone age".

He said the council's case was that the infilling of the bridge had caused "great harm to its value as a heritage asset".

Eastern Daily Press: The bridge at Congham after it was filled inThe bridge at Congham after it was filled in (Image: HRE Group)

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the Historical Railways Estate (HRE) Group, said: "Infilling has caused unnecessary harm to this regionally-significant historical asset as the stated benefit of maintaining access across it could have been achieved by other, more sympathetic methods."

He added National Highways had produced no evidence that the bridge was in  "very poor condition".

Eastern Daily Press: Graeme Bickerdike, from the Historical Railways Estate (HRE) groupGraeme Bickerdike, from the Historical Railways Estate (HRE) group (Image: Chris Bishop)

He said the work conflicted with sustainable development and protecting the historic environment and the bridge should be restored.

Ophelia Donovan, clerk to Congham Parish Council, said it had not been consulted before work on the bridge began in March, 2021.

She added in an online video call with the parish council in July 2023, Helene Rossiter from National Highways admitted "mistakes had been made".

Eastern Daily Press: Congham parish clerk Ophelia DonovanCongham parish clerk Ophelia Donovan (Image: Chris Bishop)

Mrs Donovan added: "The infill looks an eyesore, it harms the local amenity. The infill is lumpy and is a blot on the landscape, it detracts from the intrinsically aesthetic lines which was once the ridge, which formed part of the heritage of the railway." 

She said the parish council wanted the infill removed and the bridge restored to its previous condition "to be enjoyed by Congham residents now and for future generations."

The inquiry, which is expected to last four days, continues.

Eastern Daily Press: The inquiry gets under way at the Duke's Head in King's LynnThe inquiry gets under way at the Duke's Head in King's Lynn (Image: Chris Bishop)


Congham Bridge is one of just six which were built in the 1920s by William Marriott, engineer of the Midland and Great Northern Railway, featuring curved wingwalls.

The railway route connected South Lynn with Fakenham before continuing on to Great Yarmouth.

But in 1959, it was decided that the Lynn to Fakenham line should be closed.

Eastern Daily Press: The bridge at Congham in its heydayThe bridge at Congham in its heyday (Image: M&GN Trust)

The bridge had remained in use, carrying a quiet country road, St Andrews Lane, across the now-abandoned track.

But a century after it was opened, it had become corroded and began to develop fractures.

This led to National Highways to fill it in with concrete, arguing it had become unsafe and that it was the most cost-effective action it could take.

But heritage groups claim the structural issues were misrepresented and that it should have been repaired to preserve this piece of railway history.