Mediaeval Bridges by Mike Salter
Elegant, arched bridges of neatly dressed stone were an enormous feature of the Middle Ages – superseding various other ways of attempting to cross flowing water, from earlier times.
The oldest means depended on a ford, relying on the variable flow of the water, perhaps supplemented by the availability of a raft, or such like, which may have been a feature locally at the original “Sunset” Crossing in Kington.
When the water level was not too deep – stepping stones allowed dryshod crossing in favourable circumstances, and could have lead to the addition of a continuous footway by including wooden planks, on stone plinths, much favoured here by the Romans, or where large stone slabs were available – to “clapper bridges”, as seen in the West Country.
The Anglo Saxons attempted crossing with wooden made bridges, but although they were not durable, they were replaceable – and we can still see a large tree trunk, used to cross the “Betch” at Old Castle near Almeley.
Increased trade and travel (both commercial and military) in the Middle Ages – spurred on by the extensive use of stone structures such as castles and large churches, with the necessary skills and organized supplies, lead to the erection of proper stone bridges, arched, with roadways, and containing parapets at the side (except for packhorse bridges, where the panniers of the horses were low slung).
As protection against erosion, cutwaters shielded the arches, and could provide road level refuges for pedestrians, well seen at Ludford and Hereford.
With ever increasing trade and traffic – two way flow across the bridge, especially near towns, became necessary, and the best known of these was old London Bridge, (where the Thames had been forded in Roman times!). Because of the extra expense, room was provided for houses and shops on either side, and two way traffic lead to the imposition of “keep left”, on the bridge, and perhaps elsewhere.
When the approach to the bridge was liable to be flooded, a stone and earth “Causeway” was necessary, and Mordiford over the lower Lugg near Hereford is a good example.
As Bridges became more than just utilitarian, they became involved with other stone structures – well seen in Monmouth, where it is part of the Town Wall Gateway, and other uses apart from shops and houses included garderobes and Jail Cells.
Money for Bridge building was always a contentious subject – Saxon freemen being liable, later the “Lord of the Manor” of feudal times, and towns could raise a “portage tax”. Later, adjacent authorities could be responsible for their side of a particular bridge, seen at Tenbury on the County border, where the two ends did join in the middle.
These difficulties lead to the Church playing a big part in providing funds, and the legacy of this is the number of chapels seen on or near to a stone bridge, as money given to them as alms, could be used for upkeep.
So a survey of “Mediaeval bridges” tends to be wound up with the onset of the Reformation, when chantry chapels were dissolved, and new statutes came into force for ensuring funding.
This period is neatly rounded off for us, by the accounts of the travels of the scholar John Leland, in Tudor England, of the mid 1500s, where every town and bridge he crossed is noted, especially from Hereford up to Leominster. He notes that there is no bridge on the Wye above Hereford, until Builth Wells. The Arrow Bridges mentioned are from Broadward, up to Ivington, and to Pembridge, all still in place, and going upstream on the Lugg, there is no mention of anything at Mortimers Cross (or Aymestry!) but of especial interest to Kington, is the Bridge at Kinsham, probably sponsored by Limebrook Nunnery, and of course that at Presteigne – both still in place.
However, that at Kinsham shows an example of future developments in bridge construction, very prominent in a neighbouring County! Review by JR.
Dates for your Diary
For our March meeting Kington History Society will be On the Trail of the Mortimers thanks to Philip Hulme. His talk will be on Friday 16th March at 7-30pm in Kington Primary School, Mill Street as usual.
In the centuries after the Norman Conquest the Mortimer family grew, first to dominate the Welsh Marches then the whole country. One Mortimer ruled the country having forced the King to abdicate, another married into the Royal family and the Mortimers came into close succession to the crown, and one won the crown in battle. Philip’s talk records their fascinating history and is illustrated with castles, churches, abbeys, battle sites in the Welsh Marches and nearby locality. He will take questions afterwards and we have a follow up in May with a summer visit.
Members are free, visitors £2 which includes tea or coffee and biscuits.