After considerable procrastination and debate involving Dorset and Hampshire County Councils, Sopley and Hurn Parish Councils, the Manners Estate and other interested parties, work commenced in July 2006 on the construction of the new Avon Causeway river bridge. Four and a half months later the new bridge was opened with due ceremony on the 29th November and so began a new chapter in the history of this exceptional stretch of highway.
Before 1904 the Causeway was a private road under the ownership of Miss Evelyn Harriet Fane of Avon. Around 1890 Miss Fane’s Estate erected a Toll House and gate midway along the Causeway, standing on a sharp bend in the road on raised ground, where prior to 1904 road tolls were collected. The tolls were a penny for a bicycle and a halfpenny per wheel for carts and wagons. The photograph clearly shows a gate across the road and the Toll Keeper, Mrs. Crocker, standing with the postman Mr. Goff, who is waiting to pass through. A local girl, Annie Carpenter, was reported to have been paid a halfpenny to man the gate.
It would seem the reason behind the installation of the Toll House was the increase in traffic heading to and from Hurn Railway Station, particularly horse drawn transport of goods by local Carriers. This traffic would have to pass over a narrow wooden bridge across the Avon and negotiate the raised gravel Causeway.
Before the present Causeway became a public highway there existed two earlier routes. One, leading from the Sopley to Ringwood Road, at a point opposite the present Cemetery, is referred to on the 1872 Ordnance Survey Map as a causeway. This road led directly across the water meadows to the railway and on to Hurn. The map describes the bridge at the river crossing as “New wooden Bridge” and the one leading to the present Causeway as “Old wooden Bridge”.
On the west side of the river adjacent to this early route was a cottage referred to as “Turnpike Cottage” on the 1839 Tithe Map. The name is puzzling as no evidence of tolls having been taken on this old road can be found. The single storey cottage known as “The Warren” was an early example of a shuttered concrete building with a tiled roof and comprised two rooms and a small kitchen with an outside toilet in the garden. No mains water, gas or electricity was supplied to this simple abode. It remained occupied until the early 1950’s when it was considered no longer fit for habitation.
Sometime between 1872 and 1895 this old route was closed off and the bridge removed. This track soon became overgrown with grass and is no longer visible.
The other public route to Hurn was by way of a bridge near Avon Tyrrell (Upper Avon) Farm which was only suitable for cyclists pedestrians and horse riders. The closure of the earlier Causeway route must have been a source of annoyance to the residents of Sopley Parish who were now required to take a circuitous route to Hurn Railway Station and Sopley Common from Avon Tyrrell Farm by way of Pithouse Farm.
In 1903 Sopley Parish Council made a request to Miss Fane for the handing over of the private Causeway to the public. In her letter of reply Miss Fane consented to this request but laid down certain conditions. Amongst these was the proviso that “I or my successors be consulted about the design of the new bridge with powers to reject”. This condition came to light when Dorset County Council were accused of failing to gain the permission of the present Lord Manners, who is Miss Fane’s descendant, whom it was claimed had powers to veto the plans. After some consultation Lord Manners agreed to waive his powers and work went ahead in July 2006.
The opening of the present route in 1904 was greeted with enthusiasm by the inhabitants of Sopley and Hurn Parishes wishing to take a more direct route over the Avon.
An entry in the Christchurch Times of 11th May 1904 stated :-
“A Free Road. On Monday, Mr. William Walden, the District Surveyor, superintended the removal of the Toll Gate on the road leading from Hurn Railway Station to Avon known as Avon Causeway. By throwing open this road to the public confers a boon to both cyclists and others. This road has been opened in consideration of the closure of the old road leading from Upper Avon to Hurn Station having been closed”.
By this action, the only bridge between Ringwood and Christchurch became public property. The District Surveyor gave instructions for the road to be made good and work was soon under way to re-furbish the old wooden bridge eventually making it safe for vehicular traffic.
In 1937, following a period of very high water and floods over the valley meadows, the bridge piers at the southern side were subject to partial collapse causing the roadway to drop some fifteen degrees. It was found that the old wooden piers had been unable to bear the stress of the spate of rushing water and the recently added weight of the macadam surfacing had been sufficient to crush and split one of the wooden supports. In July of that year having closed the road it was decided to rebuild the bridge again with timber but constructed on concrete piles set into the river bed, thus to quote the Christchurch Times “harmonising with the rich rural beauty of the district”. In little over one month this work was accomplished.
This bridge was replaced ten years later when it was found the wooden piers were rotting. However, because of the shortage of building materials, particularly steel, following World War II, it took eleven months to rebuild. The new design consisted of a girdered deck mounted on steel piers with concrete piles under the river bed. A single carriageway road with a footway was built onto the deck.
With the opening of RAF Hurn in 1941 the Causeway became a route for military traffic heading for the Airfield. Subsequently the road has seen a steady build up of vehicular use, to a point where some 10,000 cars a day are reported to have use of this road.
By far the largest and most dramatic load to cross the Causeway bridge occurred on 2nd September 1964 when a BAC 1-11 fuselage mounted on a special low trailer was driven slowly over the narrow bridge and successfully negotiated the route to Hurn.
The latest bridge allows for two lanes of traffic and has a steel frame deck on tubular piers.