- guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 December 2009 10.37 GMT
The severed town of Workington was finally reunited yesterday to cheers and applause as a temporary bridge was opened, providing the first crossing over the River Derwent for almost three weeks following last month's flooding.
Christened Barker Crossing, after PC Bill Barker who gave his life warning traffic away from another doomed bridge 300 yards downstream, the slender iron span ended the effective marooning of thousands of local people by the Cumbrian floods.
Built in only a week by soldiers who erected a similar one in Helmand province, Afghanistan earlier this year, the Mabey bridge – the modern version of the old military Bailey version – opened at 8.05am, just in time to get hundreds of chattering children to school.
"It's a lot better than two hours on the bus," said 15-year-old Jordan Taylor, the first to get across to the group of Territorial Army soldiers at the northern end.
The 52-metre bridge uses one of the few points on the lower Derwent where the river's banks were not scoured out by the worst floods ever recorded in Cumbria. Survey work was done by Royal Engineers within a week of the disaster, which saw all Workington's road and footbridges destroyed or damaged so badly that they are unlikely to be usable until at least next summer.
Yesterday rain teemed down and the river was rising again but the mood in the half-wrecked hamlet of Barepot and on the Northside estate was jubilant.
"Carol's getting her boots on to cross over now," said Raymond Hall, a chemical worker on the north bank, whose wife has had to take the 14-mile, traffic-jammed detour or catch the packed train to get across to her admin job at the local hospital in "south" Workington. "This is going to be a real boon for everyone. It's fantastic that they've got it across so quickly."
The TA soldiers, mostly locals, joined the celebrations, pushing forward tree surgeon Kingsman Patrick Carr whose customers come from both sides of the river. "It's been a real job, dodging too and fro by any way you can," he said. "I've neighbours who live on the north but pasture their horses on the south. They've had to make this huge journey round to feed and exercise them. Thank goodness it's now just a five-minute job again."
Surveying the line of a road crossing has already started and the leader of Cumbria county council, Jim Buchanan, said that engineers were working flat out on the project. But he told locals gathered at Barker crossing, which many criss-crossed several times just for the novelty: "There's clearly a huge amount of work still to do. We hope to have clear plans and a timetable within the next few days, but there's so much planning, preparation and construction work needed, that north and south Workington may not be directly connected by road until summer 2010 at the earliest.
"I appreciate that people are getting frustrated with the travel delays and are keen to be able to cross the river by road as soon as possible. We're pulling out all the stops to make that happen but the reality is that a temporary road bridge is a far bigger project than the temporary footbridge that the army has done such a magnificent job of constructing so quickly."
Council staff are talking to businesses on both sides of the Derwent about staggering working hours, to ease delays at rush hour on the 14-mile hairpin which is currently the quickest link by road. Shuttle buses have been laid on at both sides of Barker crossing to ferry people into north bank villages and the south bank town centre.
Buchanan praised the community spirit shown since the floods and said: "Everybody needs to continue to club together to make life as easy as it can be while the disruption continues – be it through using the footbridge or taking public transport, car sharing, or avoiding travelling at peak times."
PC Barker, a father of four, died when the Northside bridge collapsed shortly after several lorries and a bus had been turned away. The body of the long-serving officer, who specialised in comforting bereaved relatives of traffic accident victims, was found the following day on a nearby beach.
Insp Mark Wear, head of Workington's neighbourhood policing team, was among the first to try Barker crossing, along with a colleague who cycled across. Both were delighted at the name.
"It commemorates my friend and colleague Bill who died saving lives right here," said Wear. "He was committed to serving his community and for him to be remembered in this way is a fitting tribute."
Local opinion is strongly in favour of transferring the name to the new permanent road bridge when that is built and the Mabey one dismantled.