The Wreake Valley has a history of settlemant going back at least 4500 years to Neolithic times and there are ancient sites all around you here. From the earliest times this was a key point for people to cross the river, first by ford and later by a stone and timber bridge. The beautiful brick bridge was built in 1794 by the Melton Mowbray Navigation Company as part of work to make the River Weake navigable from Syston, where it joins the Leicester Navigation, to Melton Mowbray where it linked with the Oakham Canal.
The Waterhouse Bridge is one of the few remaing bridges of its kind in the area. It was designed by William Jessop and is like many of the bridges on the Leicester Navigations.
Warner & Partners farm in and around Hoby, Leicestershire, and have for a century been the riparian owners of land on both sides of the River Wreake at a point where a Grade 2 listed bridge, known locally as “The Waterhouse Bridge “, spans the river about 475 metres south east of All Saints Church, Hoby (SK671169). The bridge has a public right of way for pedestrians, and the Partnership has an historical use of the bridge for agricultural purposes, although this had not been used for some time due to the poor condition of the structure.
The River Wreake was made navigable during the ‘canal mania years’ of the 1790s and was known as the Melton Mowbray Navigation. The newly navigable River Wreake started at a junction with the old Leicester Navigation at Syston and finished up in Melton Mowbray. The Waterhouse Bridge was constructed in the period 1794 to 1797, when the second section of the waterway was completed. The bridge is situated about halfway along the navigation and is about 21 feet (6.5 metre) between the abutments.
It is likely that there was an existing river crossing at the time of the bridge construction: there is evidence on the river bed, directly under the centre of the current bridge, of the foundations of a stone pillar which was the central supporting pillar of a bridge. This original medieval bridge, built of stone and timber, would have provided a river crossing for local people enabling them to walk between the villages of Hoby and Rotherby. The Melton Mowbray Navigation Company would have needed to demolish the existing bridge in the 1790s to make the channel suitable for boat navigation, but would then have had to construct a new bridge to allow for the public right of way to continue unimpeded.
The Waterhouse Bridge is therefore an important, historic structure which has been used and enjoyed by generations of people for many years. It is one of the few remaining bridges of its type to be found on the line of the Melton Mowbray Navigation. It is an iconic structure and images of it are frequently used in a variety of publicity materials. In many ways it is the ‘image of Hoby’ and, as such, its future was of concern to the Parish Council and the inhabitants of Hoby and Rotherby villages. The bridge was made a Grade 2 listed structure in 1979 by Melton Mowbray Borough Council. They declared it as: “Bridge. Early C19. Red brick. Single elliptical arch. Raised band at base of brick-coped parapets which curve outwards at either end and terminate in piers with sandstone caps.”
By 2008 the bridge was deteriorating at quite an alarming rate, particularly as a result of winter weather. A survey was generously paid for by the Hoby & Rotherby Parish Council. Warner & Partners are participants in Natural England’s “Higher Level Stewardship” environmental scheme, and set up “The Waterhouse Bridge Project” to secure the future of the bridge. The Project worked closely with the Parish Council and Leicester County Council, which has responsibility for the public rights of way. Other agencies involved were the Melton Borough Council Conservation Department, and the Environment Agency, with support from the Inland Waterways Association and the Melton & Oakham Waterways Society. Ultimately the main funding came from Natural England (as part of the Higher Level Stewardship scheme), English Heritage, Leicester County Council, Severn Trent Water, and Lafarge Aggregates.
Roy Sutton, the IWA Honorary Consulting Engineer, inspected the bridge and his report on the causes of the failures and possible remedial works was used to define the scope of the project with Natural England. Subsequently Roy wrote the specification for the contract to restore the bridge.
The footings of the bridge arch are on the stone abutments of the original bridge and these were fine. The failure arose from the construction of inadequate foundations to the flank walls by Pinkertons (canal contractors WebEd.). It appeared that following the lowering of the river level by the removal of weirs in the 1970s by Trent River Authority, with funding from the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, the surrounding ground had dried out, causing settlement of the inadequate bridge foundations of the flank walls.
The effect on the bridge was flattening of the arch and complete failure of the south west corner of the bridge. The stone abutments had been kept in good condition due to continuous immersion up to the 1970s, but since then the water level had been lowered and frost and flood was eroding the mortar. In addition the growth of ivy over most of the brickwork was damaging the bricks and mortar joints. A pressure sewer pipe had been crudely fitted over the bridge arch and some of the round brick copings were damaged or missing.
Apex Construction won the contract and started work in June 2011 with scaffolding under the arch in order to clean and re-point the bricks. Some re-cycled bricks were used to replace badly corroded bricks, and some bat (cut) bricks were fitted. The stone abutments were also pointed and the missing foundation on the upstream side flank wall was under-pinned to prevent further erosion. New copings had been made specially but were a very poor comparison with the original, and old copings were taken from the much more derelict Changeline Bridge to complete the parapets.
The most critical part of the work was to demolish and replace the south west corner of the bridge. A new concrete footing was laid about 1 metre below the bottom level of the failed brickwork and the whole corner rebuilt using recovered bricks on the outside faces above ground level. Finally, the sewer was re-laid in a more sympathetic manner and re-cycled pavors (paving bricks) used to make good the surface of the roadway.
The bridge is a grade II listed structure and was fully restored in 2011. Nowadays it is almost impossible to believe that the water level was once over four feet higher than at present and barges were pulled through the area.
Much of the content of this post on the repair came from the Inland Waterways, East Midlands Journal ‘Aegre’.