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Bridges, Quaint and Historical

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When the present writer was very young it was better worth while than it is now to make a hobby of this noble subject, because a great many old bridges, both British and foreign, had not yet been murdered, nor even injured very much, by very rapid improvisers who liked to be called industrial pioneers.

Since that time, at the beginning of the 1870's, a vast amount of harm has been done to aged and to ancient bridges, particularly in countries where armed war has been active as well as industrial enterprise. Take France, invaded first by Bismarck and Moltke, just as a ravaging prelude to the terrible four years, 1914-18. In a time of war no bridge can be regarded as inviolable. A hundred and twenty years ago, 1808, even a wonderful Roman bridge, the Puente Trajan, in Spain, over the melancholy Tagus at Alcantara, had one of the six arches destroyed by the French, so that Wellington had to repair it with a netting of ropes formed of ship's cables. And the very same arch, in 1213, had been partly ruined by the Saracens, and Charles V mended it thoroughly three hundred and forty years later.

As it has ever been a duty in armed warfare to "cut" efficiently whatever bridge has been essential to a foe's plan of campaign, we ought to find the best variety of historic bridges in countries which have suffered least from military invasions; because historic bridges should be exceedingly various, enabling our study to range from very primitive types, on through Roman to Medieval examples, till we come at last to those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which may be called Renaissance bridges.

But there is one persistent agency strong enough to counteract, in this particular matter, the inestimable benefit of being free from invasions: it is a national habit of negligence, united to an untiring fondness for haphazard compromises, both local and general. This turn of mind has been habitual among our countrymen, with the result that historic bridges in Britain have suffered perhaps more harm from negligence and baneful compromise, since the year 1800, than has come to those inherited by France from her frequently tragic past.

And this matter is the more deplorable to us because the venerable French bridges have had among them since Roman times many examples both finer in type and larger in scale and size than their British parallels. Even more, it is always to foreign countries, not to our own, that we have to go for the most memorable relics to illustrate the most notable phases of variation in historical bridge building. So Britain has never been in a position to afford historically those losses that she has imposed upon herself. She has never been what I call a "Pontist," a lover of bridges in their socially historical varieties.

We have still reason to be proud of our primitive types, notably on Dartmoor, on Exmoor, and in Wycollar Valley, Lancashire; but even here we dare not be very patriotic, as there are primeval bridges even better elsewhere, in Europe and Asia, in Africa also, and in America. To-day, happily, though far away and too late, a British bridge here and there is being placed by efficient authority among our Ancient Monuments. This good thing has happened to the bridge at Llanrwst, in North Wales, over the Con-way, built from a design by Inigo Jones, which came to be known as "the trembling bridge." This good thing - really a feminine or lady bridge in design - may or may not have been a too nervy one, when storms and heavy traffic have tested her strength together; but one thing is certain, that her three arches arid her graceful parapet will be good company if you take up the study of bridges as a hobby. Their date is about the year 1636, and their construction was begun under an order from the privy council of Charles I. Two counties - Carnarvon and Denbighshire - were to be connected by the new highway, and were to pay the costs conjointly; costs which are reputed to have totalled no more than one thousand pounds, equal in purchasing power to perhaps 12,000 of to-day's money. In 1703 a small arch was either repaired or rebuilt. The centre archway, which forms a much larger segment of a circle than the other two, is 58 feet in span. Technically, too, Inigo Jones's little masterpiece has a point of innovating thought and pluck, over which an expert now and then has lingered, and, indeed, one cannot pass it by.

It is a point that concerns the depth of arch-stones - or their length measured upon the line of the radius of an arch. In large bridge-arches, as Inigo Jones must have known, it had rarely exceeded one-thirtieth the span; and later and frequently it ranged between a fifteenth, as in Perronet's bridge at Orleans, and a twentieth or twenty-fourth, as at Neuilly and Blackfriars. In Inigo Jones's bridge there is an arch of a different sort, the proportion in length of its arch-stones to its own span being only a fraction above a fortieth. And to this fact from North Wales I add one more notable from South Wales, coming to us from a farmer's son, a local mason named William Edwards, whose bridge over the Taf, the Pont-y-Prydd - once called the Rainbow Bridge, and painted by many an artist, as by Richard Wilson - has an arch 35 feet high with a span of 140 feet, in which the depth or length of its keystone, viewed in proportion to the arch's whole span, is only one forty-seventh. And what did this fact suggest to the first architects and engineers by whom it was carefully studied? It suggested to W. Hosking, for instance, that bridges of hard stone, as of granite, might be built in arches of greater span and with less rise in proportion to the span than had been hitherto even attempted in connexion with bridge-building in Britain.

The Pont-y-Prydd has three graduated and circular holes in each spandril - devised to lighten the weight of masonry in the haunches. A low parapet slopes along the top, gabled up and down; and the footway being very steep when packhorses were in vogue, laths of wood were fastened across it to keep tired nags from stumbling. Increase of traffic over the Taf gave new life to the district south of Merthyr Tydfil, and in a photograph of the bridge in the possession of the writer, Edwards's work is cheek by jowl with a horrible thing put over the Taf by industrialists. For the rest, the bravery of William Edwards built for his native county, Glamorgan, another stone bridge of one arch, this time over the lovely Towy, four and a half miles north of Neath; and the name given to it was Pontardawe. Contemporary criticism thought it better and handsomer than Pont-y-Prydd, but it was not such a great adventure, its span being no more than about 80 feet.

At this point I think of three arches more in South Wales, and they belong to earlier aspects of our subject. At Monmouth, over the river Monnow, is a partly venerable bridge with ribbed arches and an arched gateway for defence, originally built when the thirteenth century was nearly seventy-five years old. Being venerable only in parts, you must see it also in old prints and pictures, its footway having been lowered, and the approach at each end levelled up. In its younger days, too, the Monnow bridge was no wider than the opening of its gateway, so it was fit then only for pack horses and for hand-carts. Whenever there is room, a road should be diverted and a new bridge built, in order to keep a typically historic one from the havoc of modernisation.

Military bridges were in vogue during the Middle Ages, and their services were needed not only when countries were invaded, but also when rival barons and other autocrats tried to take one another by surprise. Gateways had arrow-slits and holes, machicolations also, through which boiling liquids and other ravaging things could be dropped upon assailants; and powerful gates were closed upon the arched passage-ways. So the Monnow bridge is a notable relic, though very humble in size when compared with the Pont Valentre over the river Lot at Cahors, in France, nobly erected by the Bridge Friars of France in the thirteenth century. We have also - for I hope it still exists - another humble warrior-bridge with a small gateway, fourteenth century in type, at Warkworth, Northumberland. It has ribbed arches and triangular recesses in its piers, found necessary in narrow bridges for the safety of wayfarers on foot. The little defensive tower at one end, through which traffic over the bridge has to pass, has an arched entrance so low that a gipsy caravan, not fifty years ago, failed to enter; so the pavement was hollowed out that the caravan might continue its journey.

From this episode it is evident that the height of waggons remained very low for a very long time in the Warkworth neighbourhood. But, for some reason or other, our early forefathers had and retained a great dislike for height and breadth, as in so many of their rooms, doors and windows. Were they showing resistance to certain things either dreaded or unpleasant? I believe so. Archways narrow and low were easier to defend because more difficult to attack, as only a few men could assail them abreast. Similarly, low doors and ceilings were useful in keeping rooms warm in winter, damp and draught from outside being feared very much. And this opposition to the British climate brought about some notable things even in our great cathedrals, whose deep porches and small entrances were certainly designed and built as a protection against draughts and damp. So a good deal is to be learnt by thinking of the low gateways on our two surviving bastille bridges, particularly the one at Warkworth.

Wherever you see a bridge with ribbed arches, as at Kirkby Lons-dale, Baslow and Bakewell, Warkworth and Monmouth, examine it carefully, as the introduction of ribbed or groined arches into bridges has great and varied interest. We cannot find them in frugal Scotland, though their invention was true and fine economy, as it enabled builders to use a third less of tooled and clavated masonry. In Poitou, where ribbed bridges have been keenly studied by French experts, the type seems to date from the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth. Let us, then, remember also that King John of England invaded Poitou in 1214, and that Henry III failed in two such adventures between 1229 and 1242. Possibly, therefore, the technical idea of ribbed arches may have come to England then from Poitou. On the other hand, it was the Cistercians of the twelfth century who introduced ribbed vaulting into some English churches, so why not also into bridges as a development?

In those days, and much later, bridges were united in many ways to the Church, that granted indulgences pretty often to those who helped to maintain them; and this fact, I think, justifies the assumption that new methods in sacred architecture would not be withheld from good new bridges, particularly when they were methods friendly to thrift. Bridges being protected by the Church, many were built by the clergy, both lay and monastic; some had chapels, as we see to-day at Wakefield and at Rotherham, others had a little place for prayer, or just a shrine enniched; and one religious emblem was invariable, or nearly so - a cross or crucifix raised up from the parapet midway across a river or stream.

Tired pilgrims were devoted to these Christian symbols and resting places, and most people in those days loved to see a cresset light flaring out a welcome from some building either on or very near a bridge - a house, or a mill, or a gateway, or a chapel. Yes, and there was a belief among peasants, in many countries, that a raised cross on a bridge prevented evil spirits from passing above running water.

This belief in the supernatural brings to mind a second bridge in South Wales, called The Devil's Bridge, in Cardiganshire, about twelve miles from Aberystwith. It spans the Mynach just before its junction with the Rheidol. There are four leaps of boiling water in the Mynach cataract, and the bridge was thrown across an eerie chasm about 114 feet above the first fall, and about 108 yards from the bottom of the cataract. Originally it was built by the monks of Strata Florida, date unknown; but the superstitious gave it gladly to the Devil, and then made use of a gadabout legend - a sort of uncanny pilgrim among myths - that took up its home upon many other bridges and in many parts of Europe. For what reason? One superstition has always given birth to several others, and it was a custom of immemorial date to offer a sacrifice to the spirits of evil, among whom the Devil had an incessant popularity in the fears of men and women. As Jonah was thrown overboard to placate a storm, so the monks of Strata Florida when they built their Pont-y-Mynach, complying with one petted superstition, offered a sacrifice to the evil spirits haunting a perilous cataract and chasm. Either they threw a dog over the parapet of their completed bridge, or buried one under an abutment of their brave arch.

But, meantime, says the Welsh version of the legend, old Megan Llandunach had lost her only cow, and by and by a terrible surprise came to her, for she saw the poor animal across the ravine, and Megan herself, unaided, could not go to the other side. Then the Evil One rose up before her, cowled as a monk, with a rosary at his belt, and volunteered to put a bridge over the Mynach if she would let him have whatever living being first went across his finished work. And old Megan smiled her thanks and consented. As soon as the Pont-y-Mynach had grown to its full size and shape, a real Devil's Bridge, yet useful for ever, the Evil One, bowing and smiling from the other bank, beckoned enticingly to Megan that she might come over at once to his rosary and his cowled authority. By good luck, happily, the old woman was prepared for this invitation. When watching the Evil One at his rapid work she had noticed, suddenly, that one knee was behind his leg, and for a foot he had a hoof. Terror of terrors! Yet good sense returned:

In her pocket she fumbled, a crust out tumbled,
She called her little black cur; The crust over she threw, the dog after it flew,
Said she, "The dog's yours, crafty sir!"

From this ancient myth I turn now to one of Dame Nature's own marvels, called Lydstep Arch, in Little England beyond Wales, that you reach by crossing the Taf from Carmarthenshire into Pembroke. Along the coast of this noble neighbourhood there are very impressive cliffs, which seem to leap up from the sea, and they are pierced into caverns and arches by natural wear and tear. Their composition is limestone and grit and shells. Britain has some other of Nature's many arches, notably the Durdle Door on the coast at Lulworth.

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