By Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
THE next section of a major active travel route across rural Somerset could soon be delivered as part of a new partnership.
The Strawberry Line active travel route currently runs interrupted between Yatton railway station and Station Road in Cheddar, largely following the route of the former Cheddar Valley railway line.
Numerous other short portions of the route have been opened over the last 12 months, including two sections of the route in Shepton Mallet in March and the completion of a link between Westbury-sub-Mendip and Easton, which opened on September 16.
Now National Highways has announced it will be working to unlock the latest section of the route between Shepton Mallet and Wells, by bringing a former railway bridge back into use.
In addition to managing England’s major road network (including the M5 and the A303 in Somerset), National Highways currently looks after the UK’s historical railway estate, which includes more than 3,100 structures such as tunnels and viaducts.
The agency (formerly known as Highways England) has recently been working with the Friends of Windsor Hill Tunnels to open up two historic viaducts north of Shepton Mallet as part of a new active travel route, which recently secured planning permission.
Now the agency has joined forces with the Strawberry Line Society and registered charity Greenways and Cycle Routes to open up a disused railway bridge on the outskirts of Shepton Mallet.
Stump Cross Bridge carries Ridge Road over the disused railway, which closed in 1963 as part of the notorious Beeching cuts.
Each of the three tunnel arches were filled by local landowners after the closure of the line and removal of the track, and in recent years the site has become a hotspot for fly-tipping (which has been a significant issue within the former Mendip area).
Since it became the custodian of the bridge in 2013, National Highways has cleared up the site, installed a bat ‘hotel’ beside one of the spans, and undertaken work to ensure the bridge could continue to carry traffic safely (including local farm traffic).
One of the two Strawberry Line sections which opened in March links the West Shepton Playing Fields, just off the busy B3136 West Shepton, to the northern side of Ridge Road.
The three parties are now working on plans for the next stage of the route towards Wells, which would pass underneath one of the bridge’s three spans and bend north-west into the neighbouring parish of Croscombe.
Hélène Rossiter, head of the Historical Railways Estate at National Highways, said: “We are really excited about Greenways and Cycle Routes’ aspirations for this site, and are working closely with them to support their plans for another one of our structures to connect with the popular Strawberry Line.
“We look after more than 3,100 historical railway structures across the UK and this is a great opportunity to bring one of them back into use.
“We know that there is strong community support for re-purposing Stump Cross Bridge and we’ve taken this on board as part of our plans.
“As ever, there are challenges to overcome, but by working together we can maximise our chances of success.”
The new section of the active travel will be constructed using the same methods as the previous Shepton Mallet stretches, meaning it can be used by walkers, cyclists, wheelchair users and people needing mobility scooters.
A spokesperson for Greenways and Cycle Routes said: “We are delighted to be working with National Highways to link the routes that we have negotiated either side of this busy road to create a memorable green-way and wheelchair friendly route.”
The Strawberry Line Society is currently prioritising closing the gap between Shepton Mallet and Wells, allowing walkers and cyclists to avoid the busy A371 and hilly terrain.
Work is currently progressing on a short extension near the Dulcote recycling centre, which is expected to open before the end of the year.
A further short section along West Street in Wells will be delivered under plans for a larger Lidl supermarket on the A39 Strawberry Way, which were approved in July.
Negotiations are continuing with landowners along the remainder of the route – including the gap between Dulcote and Ridge Road, and land between the B3136 and Station Road in Shepton Mallet.
A spokesperson for the Strawberry Line Society said: “We are delighted by the constructive stance of National Highways’ Historic Railways Estate on re-purposing the old bridge over the trackbed at Ridge Road for active travel.
“We are hopeful that a safe passage under this heavily trafficked road can be achieved.
“In recent years, Ridge Road has become a busy ‘bypass’ to Shepton Mallet, and therefore increasingly dangerous to cross.
“We look forward to working with HRE to provide the best possible route past Ridge Road for vulnerable path users.”
National Highways has said it will work closely with Somerset Council and Natural England to ensure that extending the route will “have no disruption to the environment”, including the bats currently roosting near the bridge.
It is not currently clear how this latest extension could be funded, with limited funds remaining from the sums bequeathed to the project by Mendip District Council before its abolition in April.
Somerset Council received £1.5 million from the government’s active travel fund in June, but has declined to comment on which parts of the county will directly benefit from the funding.
David Carter, the council’s service director for infrastructure and transport, said: “We are pleased to see the partnership working between National Highways and Greenways and Cycle Route, delivering this important piece of infrastructure to bring a historic structure back into public service.”
For more information on the Strawberry Line, including how to get involved as a volunteer, visit www.thestrawberryline.org.uk