Breydon viaduct bridgeman’s fear, trapped by rising waters

MAINBRIDGE OVER UNTROUBLED WATERS...a peaceful scene, with the Breydon viaduct open to river traffic

MAINBRIDGE OVER UNTROUBLED WATERS...a peaceful scene, with the Breydon viaduct open to river traffic.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

EVEN now, in 2013, 60 years since the terrible East Coast floods that caused deaths and devastation hereabouts, new anecdotal gems keep filtering through. One just brought to my attention concerns the poor fellow who spent that dreadful January 31 night alone in the high control turret of the Breydon swing bridge as gales and surging water buffeted it through long hours of darkness.

He was the late Cyril Pleasants, of Seaward Walk in Caister, who had replaced colleague George Skippen in the turret on schedule at two o’clock that afternoon and was due to work a routine eight-hour shift on the old Midland and Great Northern Railway viaduct that crossed Breydon for six decades between 1902 and 1962.

It had cost £38,000 to build and carried the line until it was axed in 1953, being demolished nine years later and succeeded in 1986 by the present road bridge.

According to railways historian Mike King, a former Gorlestonian long resident in Lowestoft: “Cyril was due to come off duty at 10pm that evening but was becoming increasingly concerned that the already strong gale appeared to be increasing in strength, howling around and through the turret high above Breydon and making the bridge vibrate.

“About 4pm he opened the bridge to allow a small coaster through and was surprised that she should be heading for the sea in that weather. Some time later he looked towards Cobholm and, in the light of street lamps, noticed what seemed to be a peculiar ‘shimmering effect’. It was then that he realised the streets were flooded!

“The swollen river had breached the Breydon wall but in the pitch darkness he was unable to see this. The weather continued to deteriorate, with waves lashing over the bottom spans of the bridge.

“This caused him a particular problem. How was he to get off?

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“When the bridge was first built there was an agreement with Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners that the bridge would be manned 24 hours per day and the normal position of the swing span was ‘open to river traffic.’ At first, manning was by two 12-hour shifts but in the 1920s this was changed to three eight-hour shifts.

“In 1951, looking to cut down on expenditure, British Railways decided to ignore the agreement with the P&HC and stop the overnight shift. This was when Bob Pitts (the third bridgeman) was found other duties at Beach Station (Bob ended his days at Vauxhall).

“There was no rail traffic overnight (or on Sundays) and the bridge was to be locked open to river traffic during these times.

“Since he could no longer walk off the bridge, how was the bridgeman to get off? The bridge did have a boat but, because of the speed of the tide, it was almost impossible to scull across. A local boat owner, Chris Liffen, was hired to pick the bridgeman up each evening at 10pm and take one back the next morning at 6am.

“On the night of the flood, Cyril realised that it would be impossible for Chris to pick him up. He had very little food, and telephoned officials at Beach Station who told him to stay where he was! There was also the little matter of the last train of the day at about 9pm to Lowestoft.”

As this time came and went, Cyril contacted Dick Spurgeon - on duty in the Caister Road Junction signal box – to ask why he had not been given the “line clear” information so he could swing open the bridge for the night, but his colleague replied that according to his track-circuit indicators, the train was still in their section of the line.

Mike King continues: “Normally a passing train could be heard and felt even at its limited 5mph maximum speed across the bridge, but not this night – too much background noise! Cyril opened the turret door and could hear the hissing of a steam engine below.

“Holding on for dear life, he made his way down to the track below where he found a foot-plateman attempting to untangle ropes from the valve gear on the side of the engine. Crawling on hands and knees, Cyril made his way along the track (there were no handrails between the spans) and helped the locomotive fireman to remove the ropes.

“The train was able to continue on its way, no doubt to the relief of the alarmed passengers. The ropes had come from lifebelts that were on the bridge and had been blown loose by the gale.

“Cyril swung the bridge and settled down for the night on a chair – no blanket, no food, nothing. The electricity supply had failed and the only light was from a small oil lamp. The turret was a very draughty place but at least he had the stove to keep him warm.

“He was eventually taken off the bridge much later the next day after the water level dropped and Chris Liffen was able to reach him. Breydon Bridge was closed for good just eight months later.”

Another ex-railwayman interviewed by Mike King was the late Reggie Masters at his home in Brasenose Avenue, Gorleston, who recalled that he was driving a train across the Breydon Bridge when he was amazed to see a bicycle lying on the tracks in front. He could not stop the train and the bike was crushed!

Writes Mike: “Cyril Pleasants was on duty in the turret that day and, at the end of his shift, descended to the track to collect his bicycle. Needless to say, he had to walk home that day!

“Until I related Reggie’s story to him, Cyril never knew what had happened to it. In turn, Reggie never knew to whom it belonged. The truth emerged about 40 years later! Cyril had left his bike tethered to the bridge rails by rope but the wind must have blown it undone.”