A Footpath in England, Torn Down, Keeps Being Rebuilt by ‘Fairies’

A small, beloved footbridge in the county of Norfolk has been dismantled twice only to be replaced by “local fairies,” according to village lore, in a long-running dispute between a coastal English village and the National Trust, a conservation charity.

The bridge, which provides a pathway to beloved salt marshes on the English coast, had been used for more than 50 years until the National Trust took it down last year, citing safety concerns.

Villagers received no warning of the plans to remove a crucial route, said Ian Curtis, a resident campaigning to have the bridge replaced.

“There was an outcry in the village — ‘they’ve took our bridge down, we can’t get on the marsh!’” Mr. Curtis said. He said the National Trust, which owns the salt marshes, was being heavy-handed, and compared the dynamic between the Stiffkey villagers and the group to that of peasants and the “lord of the manor.” “It’s medieval times, that’s what it’s like here,” Mr. Curtis said.

For locals and tourists alike, Norfolk’s salt marshes are a haven for wildlife watching. The twisting muddy creeks, flooded daily by the tide, are a conservation area for breeding birds and shellfish like blue-shelled cockles. Without the Stiffkey bridge, which stretched over a tidal creek, visitors could get stranded in the marshes because of changing tides.

After the bridge was dismantled in February 2022, a replacement one was erected one night in July. Mr. Curtis explained that fairies, long thought to have lived in the salt marshes, were to thank. Weeks later, the National Trust took it down, saying the Crown Estate and Natural England called it dangerous, in what Mr. Curtis described as a dawn raid. A second makeshift bridge appeared soon after.

Duncan Baker, a member of Parliament for North Norfolk, said that the twice rebuilt “fairy bridge” was a mystery. “No one in the community knows” who rebuilt it, he said.

And if anyone did, none were saying.

For Mr. Baker, the final straw in the dispute was the National Trust’s refusal to release an engineering report that the trust said had been the basis for its decision to remove the initial bridge.

“It’s a David versus Goliath situation,” he said. “An enormous organization has effectively removed a bridge, totally unprepared for the feelings of the villagers who have been so upset by this.”

The National Trust said it had no choice but to remove the bridge because coastal erosion had made it unsafe. It said that its independent structural engineer would attend a meeting with the local community in November to explain why the bridge was taken down.

“Further widening of the channel and the age and condition of the bridge meant that our only option was to remove it on safety grounds following specialist advice,” the charity said in a statement. It added that it understood that the bridge’s removal was a cause of concern for the community, and that it was committed to replacing it by next fall, which was “as soon as we practically can.”

In the meantime, the second fairy bridge is still standing — for now, at least.

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