Building bridges and structures’ medieval roots

The pier and abutments of Chantry Bridge in Morpeth are all that is left of the old medieval bridge.

By Roger Hawkins
Saturday, 27 April, 2019, 12:14

It was built in the late 13th century and made Morpeth a staging post on the road from London to Scotland.

The priest of Morpeth Chantry was also the keeper of the bridge. He received the alms of pilgrims and travellers, and carried out repairs. He was also the master of the grammar school.

After the suppression of the monasteries, Edward VI made the Bailiffs and Burgesses responsible for the upkeep of both the grammar school and the bridge.

Mackenzie, writing in 1825, said: “The bridge is a strong old structure... It is extremely narrow, and so steep as to be very difficult in the ascent, and not less dangerous in the descent, especially to heavy-loaden waggons. Both to people on foot and on horseback the passage is equally inconvenient and perilous.”

Soon afterwards, on two separate occasions, the Mail and the Wonder coaches broke through the parapet and deposited horses and passengers in the river.

An Act was obtained in 1829 and the new bridge by Telford opened in 1831.

We have to thank John Hodgson for most of what we know about the old bridge.

He had a drawing made at his own expense, and a local architect, Peter Nicholson, surveyed it for him “very obligingly, and with considerable trouble”.

The arches were found to differ in detail from each other, and from the parapet over the central pier.

Hodgson concluded that they had been rebuilt at different times. No record of it survives, but the evidence he gathered hardly admits of any other explanation.

At first the Corporation left the old bridge intact so people carried on using it to avoid paying the toll.

All the bailiffs had to do was put up posts so that only foot passengers could get through.

But in 1834, in an act of civic vandalism, they blew up the arches with gunpowder.

A wooden footbridge was first put up, then the present one by Swinney’s in 1869.

With the arches demolished, the central pier began to rise due to geostatic uplift.

In Wanderings Along The River Wansbeck, Harry Rowland tells how, in 1972, workmen made a coffer dam to repair and conserve the pier, and he was permitted to examine the structure.

“The pier had been built on a raft or cradle of heavy oak timbers. There were pointed timbers at each end like the gables of a house and the longer timbers were crossed by half-lap timbers.

"All were held in position by numerous piles. One of the longer timbers was 30ft long and about 18ins thick. It still carried the original bark and probably dated back to the reign of Edward I.”

Warkworth Old Bridge was built in 1379. It has a bridge tower at one end, the only one in England still standing to any height.

Although it looks like a fortified bridge, it was not, in fact, very strong. Its function is more likely to have been to regulate who went in and out, and to collect tolls.

It has a guard room or porter’s lodge on one side, which was also used as a lock-up. The chamber above may have been living accommodation for the keeper.

What look like battlements are actually windows, but it probably did have battlements when first built.

In 1965, after the new bridge was finished, the old bridge was rebuilt, putting right the problems due to old age and traffic damage, including the demolition of one of the parapets by a tank in 1943. (See Bob’s Bridges by Robert Robson, edited by Janet Brown and Christopher Hudson).

Despite all this, it has been very little altered. The arches have four ribs, and it has never been widened. The roadway is 11ft across, the same as at Morpeth.

Felton Old Bridge is probably of the 15th century.

The three arches each have four ribs and have been widened on the upstream side. The soffit (underside) of the extension is plain, without ribs.

Mr Robson knew of an old date-stone that may have read ‘1839’.

The bridge had a T-junction at each end, making it dangerous for fast-moving coaches, so triangular extensions were added to make the approach easier.

We have no date, but you can tell by looking that it must have been added later.

This brings us back to Peter Nicholson. He was both architect and mathematician. In 1828 he published A Practical Treatise On Masonry And Stone-Cutting.

In it, he solved the problem of how to cut stones to the complex shapes needed for a skew arch.

There is no suggestion that he had anything to do with Felton Bridge, but his instructions were so plain that they allowed stone-masons to cut the shapes accurately using templates.

Rothbury Bridge is the only one of the four not to be replaced. The medieval arches have four ribs, but in 1759 it was widened on the upstream side, again with plain soffits.

It was rebuilt some ten years ago, and reopened in 2012, having been further widened so that the deck now oversails the piers.