[The following comes from "Bridges," the fifteenth chapter of Gertrude Jekyll's Old English Household Life (1925). GPL scanned and formatted text and images.]
There is nothing in the way of simple building that is more full of local character than the old bridges in country districts. Many of those in the home counties are some three hundred years old, and others in the mountainous north and in Wales of still greater antiquity. There are, in South-west Surrey alone, five good old bridges over the small river Wey, all within a part of its flow of only a few miles. They are built of the local Bargate stone. The uneven arches point to the use of some primitive kind of centering, probably an under structure of logs, then of brushwood and a top facing of earth. Some of these bridges have a low parapet wall but the ones shown have the wooden railing of the original pattern, though no doubt several times renewed. It is the best kind of railing for any kind of bridge, whether for road traffic or as a footbridge. The horizontal beams, one over each pier and over the crown of each arch, stand out like putlogs and take the brace that supports the post, so that no space is taken up on the road side. In a sixth bridge of the same kind, a few miles further downstream, the true character has been lost by the erection of an iron railing.
It is interesting to observe in the case of all these old bridges, the evidence of a still older ford, made by widening and shallowing the Stream and covering the bottom with stones and rough gravel, so that the water is nowhere more than a foot deep and often only a few inches. In fact, in the case of the fine old Eashing bridge, the only road to a part of the works of a paper mill a little way above the bridge is through the river bed. There was grave danger, a few years ago, of this fine old bridge being condemned as unsuitable for modern heavy traffic, but happily it has been saved by becoming the property of the National Trust.
Left: Stopham Bridge on the Arun, Sussex. Middle: A Thames Footbridge. Right: In the Gwynant Valley, Wales. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
The large bridge at Stopham, in Sussex, over the Arun, a few miles north of Arundel, is of more exact architecture. It gains in its appearance of importance from the high central arch, so built to allow the passage of loaded hay barges, and from the small bastion-like projections that come over the pier, for the safety of foot passengers on the narrow road.
The many footbridges about the Thames, where a small tributary comes in or where an outfall flows out, are of no particular importance as to structure. The illustration in Fig. 250 shows the weakness of the handrail's support; the small beams that bear the footboards should have been carried out so as to allow of an outer brace to the posts.
The Welsh bridge illustrated . . ./ is characteristic of the country and in perfect harmony with the sentiment of the rugged mountainous region and the shallow, rushing river. The large stones that form the piers are built up without mortar and are tied by the rough timbers that are built in with them. Above this is the wooden footway. The whole thing is just right; a more exactly built bridge would have a jarring effect in such a place.
Left: Swanside Bridge, Downham, Lancashire. Right: Watendlath Bridge, Lake District. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
The picture of a stone footbridge at Downham, in Lancashire, shows an apparently slight but graceful structure, and reminds one of the wonderful strength of the arch. It is a simple arch and nothing else. There is no walling or anything over the crown to give extra weight and solidity; it is only filled in at each end to let the path pass over easily. It is almost exactly repeated by the bridge at Watendlath, in the near Lake District with the same structural influence.
There have been sad losses in recent years of good old bridges that needed repair or renewal, or that have been considered too weak or too narrow for modern traffic. It is not that a good bridge cannot now be built such as will suffice for present needs, but that unfortunately it is rare to find on a rural district council, any member of recognised authority who can influence the decisions of his colleagues towards something of good taste and good tradition as well as sound structure; so it is that we see all over the country the cast-iron engineer's bridge and rarely anything better.
Jekyll, Gertrude Old English Household Life: Some Account of Cottage Objects and Country Folk. London: B. T. Batsford, 1925.
Last modified 5 February 2009