Old about now

History of British Bridges

The trouble with defining old things is finding out how old they actually are, which given the lack of reliable historical primary sources means a lot of guesswork. Take the Old Dee Bridge, the oldest surviving crossing in the walled city of Chester. The stone bridge is probably the one ordered by the Black Prince and was finished around 1357. The Medieval bridge had fallen into such a bad state that no-one could cross it. The plague stopped work on building it in 1346, and was started again in 1351 by the prince’s own mason. The reason for the bridge was both military and trade purposes.

But this wasn’t the first bridge in Chester. There was a Roman one, the stone piers of which are just visible downstream of the Medieval one. It was likely topped with a timber deck. The reason that Chester was strategic had much to do with its location to the north east of Wales (wars between England and Wales were frequent until Tudor times), and on route to the rebellious northern regions. A major fort existed in Chester around 74 CE , but after the Romans left, the bridge vanished.

Recreation of Roman Chester

At the time of Queen Aethelflaed of Mercia (911-918), there was a ferry, and she was responsible, according to accounts, for the revival of the walls, and the Saxon bridge, which was then possibly finished by her brother King Edward of Wessex. (The kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex eventually merged to form England). However, there is also a reference to a bridge in a charter grant of King Edgar the Pacifier of England (959-975) to the monks at St Werburgh’s abbey (part of Chester). Rumour has it that this charter was forged by monks to gain rights to the bridge, and therefore exemption from upkeep of the bridge. The upkeep of a Medieval bridge was a ‘common burden’ for the community, so being exempt by charter was advantageous. It also simply could have been a modern day equivalent of a typo, something incorrectly transcribed. So, as you can see, it’s not easy to know who built what since there are motivations to lie.

The next record of bridge is the Norman Domesday Book (1086). King William’s survey of all his kingdom’s assets and dues is something of a vast audit and a snapshot of Norman times, The book records that the Provost (a local dignitary) of Chester Castle could demand a man from every hide (a measure of land that is taxable) to rebuild Chester’s walls and bridge. Over the next two centuries the bridge’s timber structure was constantly being repaired. Wood just couldn’t stand up to the torrents of flooding, and there were many records of it being destroyed.

By the reign of Edward I, who really had it in for the Welsh, the need for a stone bridge was such that legend has it that the king decreed that a stone bridge must be built or he would sack the city. But the citizens themselves wanted a bridge, and what made it easier for them to comply with the demand for a sturdy stone bridge was the removal of the ancient obligation for the citizens (a man with a hide) to work on the bridge themselves. Now they could raise the money to pay for the bridge to be built by labourers. Except, they might not have done. An alternative story is that the citizens convinced the king they were ‘free from the duty of repairing it, but the inhabitants of the county were bound’. These disputes between king, citizens and abbey, the references to ancient charters, meant the Norman bridge was in constant disrepair.

Then came the chivalrous Plantagenet Black Prince’s 1357 order to repair the strategic crossing with stone, and this bridge is the one that remains relatively intact. Built in red sandstone with seven arches, the stone bridge spanned the river Dee and the leat, an artificial waterway that supplied the mill ponds. Its construction doesn’t mean it wasn’t in need of repairs or looked the same as it does now. In fact, by 1387 it was in a state of ruin again.

Letters patent were granted by Richard II to use the murage to maintain the bridge. Murage, pontage and pavage were taxes levied to repair walls, bridges and paving, respectively. So the city was given permission to use the money to maintain the walls to repair the bridge; the bridge was more important than the walls. In 1388 pontage was granted for 3 years.

A tower was added in 1499, a gatehouse a couple decades later, including a drawbridge. To protect the bridge, iron wheeled carts were forbidden. Too narrow for traffic, it was seriously struggling by the 18th Century. In 1826, the bridge was widened to include a corbelled (jutting out) footpath.

Written records are not the only source, maps and paintings provide information too. They show structures no longer present.

Old Dee Bridge by Edmund Garvey ~1765-1780

The bridge does have arches of different sizes due to the quality of the riverbed and the removal of the drawbridge. It looks a bit messy, a legacy of a bridge that had to survive floods, civil wars, rising traffic and poor maintenance. It’s still here though, and like many old bridges, it has to be protected by preservation order and is a listed building and scheduled monument. Traffic can still cross it, but under the control of a one way system and traffic lights (not ideal for a modern city, although there is a ‘newer’ bridge further upstream).

Old isn’t a reliable definition of the passing time. Something that is new in one century is old in the next. But six centuries of existence I think counts as old.

11 comments

  1. So much history in every place. Most people just see what is in front of them without realising what has gone before.
    My O post is from an old story.
    Ox #AtoZChallenge

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is known as the Old Dee bridge, but I doubt people realise how old it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great history post and this time of a bridge I have been across.

    Facing The Mountain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve crossed it many times but generally I use the more recent one.

      Like

  3. Arlee Bird · · Reply

    Now that’s some pretty old stuff and nicely documented. Nothing in the United States can compare to that other than the structures left behind by the original inhabitants of the land and none of that is documented with any specifics.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Literacy is very important for documentation and very few people could read or write until the last century or so. Hence the Church being the most common but not necessarily the most reliable source.

      Like

  4. Yeah, 6 Centuries is old. 😉 In my line of work 6 years is “old.”
    Then you have Astronomy which deals with billions of years.

    So I guess old is relative.


    Tim Brannan
    The Other Side | The A to Z of Conspiracy Theories

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s relative from region to region. The UK doesn’t have as many old things as Egypt or Greece!

      Like

  5. debscarey · · Reply

    Thank you for the lovely bit of history about Chester. Cynically that history also demonstrates the propensity to avoid paying for stuff is nothing new.

    Debs visiting this year from
    Making Yourself Relationship Ready

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s also so hard to say how old something is when different parts are different ages, and a stone here and there is constantly being replaced. Very interesting to see all that a bridge has had to go through in the past centuries.
    O is for One-and-Only

    Like

    1. Having stone replaced over time gradually changes the whole bridge.

      Like

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