It’s the beginning of a new A to Z blogging challenge and my ninth year of participating. This year will also honour the late Jeremy Hawkins who designed the graphic art used by participating bloggers all round the world.
Each day throughout April I will be posting on my theme: the history of British bridges. Today I’m starting with A for Ancient. The oldest kinds of bridges.
In Somerset there is an ancient causeway across The Levels – a wetland area – that is believed to be dated around 3838 BCE. Made of timber, it would have been a track of boards, allowing Neolithic walkers to move across the land. Eventually, these logs would have been elevated to be bridges and boardwalks. The Ancient Romans were considered be the bridge builders (aqueducts too) of antiquity, and there are traces of these ancient bridges in the UK. Something to revisit in a later post.
Most durable bridges in the UK were built post 1750s, when roads widened, and railways and canals criss-crossed the landscape. Before then, the simple of act of crossing a river relied on ferries and more primitive means, like fords or stepping stones, like these in Derbyshire.
The oldest surviving bridge in England is considered to be the Tarr Steps in Exmoor National Park. The slabs of stone cross the River Barle and it’s actual date of construction is not known, but is likely to be in the Middle Ages. It is a type of bridge known as Clapper, from the Medieval latin, claperius, meaning a “pile of stones” or maybe Anglo-Saxon word Cleaca, meaning “bridging the stepping stones”. Tarr Steps is the largest of its kind with its seventeen spans, one to two ton slabs, of which the largest is 2.4m long.
Clapper bridges are found across the west country, parts of Wales and the north of England. There is another ancient clapper bridge at Postbridge in Dartmoor, which is believed to be 13th Century and for the use of pack horses.
Packhorse bridges were designed to allow horses carrying paniers or sidebags to cross. The parapets are low, so they don’t knock the panniers, or without side walls altogether. Packhorse routes were found across Europe until the arrival of turnpikes and canals. Traditionally, packhorse bridges are narrow, built prior to the 19th century, and on one of these trade routes. Carrbridge packhorse bridge is the oldest surviving stone bridge in the Scottish Highlands, and built in 1717, although badly damaged in the 19th Century by the great flood of 1829.
There are dozens of these packhorse bridges up and down the British Isles, typically one arched, stone, and narrow, just the width of a single cart.
Keep your fingers crossed these ancient clapper and pack horse bridges don’t get washed away in flood waters. They are gradually disappearing from our heritage.