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Bridges, Quaint and Historical page 2

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Natural bridges of many sorts were in the world everywhere immense periods of geological time before the earliest forerunners of man were brought into being by very slow evolution; and every one of them was of service here and there and now and then, both to quadrupeds and to serpents also. When the progenitors of mankind were learning how to remain safe among very fierce beasts of prey and very big creatures that devoured grass and herbs in vast quantities, like the mammoth, they gained much help from Nature's bridges, and gradually they began to see that the simplest of these things were models that their delight in mimicry could copy in a rude way. Thus they would see a great slab of stone which an earthquake had tossed into the air and which had fallen by chance from bank to bank of a deep crevice in the land or a torrent of water flowing deep down in a narrow but perilous gully. Over this natural bridge they would go, for a very long time without any thought at all. It was no more to them than one of the ages-old tracks which hungry and thirsty quadrupeds had made in deep forests by going daily from their lairs to watering places and to feeding resorts.

But even human customs and conventions have never been altogether unteachable by incessant needs. Though marvellously unyielding, they have felt from time to time, often at long intervals, the action of genius coming from a single mind. One day, then, a savage of genius placed a big slab of stone, with help from his fellow tribesmen, from bank to bank of a stream, or of an opening in the land that was dangerous to children. Well, bridges of this sort have been delivered down to our own times by custom and convention, and in every land where women and men live. We have some in the Wycollar Valley, Lancashire.

Note that the Weavers' Bridge is a great advance on another lintel-stone bridge in Wycollar, which has one stone only. It has three such stones and two primitive supports in the water, which I call piers of stepping stones, because they were first suggested to mankind by a natural bridge of stepping stones and boulders. Near Postbridge, in Dartmoor, over the East Dart, is a famous clapper bridge that you should compare with the Weavers' in Wycollar; it is much more impressive, really formidable in its austere primitiveness; it has three heavy table slabs of granite, each about fifteen feet long and about six feet wide. Two piers in the river are made of somewhat similar stones, five stones in each pier, placed length-wise up and down stream. On Dartmoor, also, over the Walla Brook, there is a clapper bridge with only one slab, less important than Fern-worthy Bridge, Dartmoor, perhaps, which has a slab ten feet long by four wide.

How old are Dartmoor's present clapper bridges? This question has caused much disputing, mainly among men who have little knowledge and no imagination. It matters not when the present ones were made, because their type is wonderfully primitive, custom and convention having retained it for daily use over great spans of time beyond computation. Long before primitive men had grown into their age of art, into sculpture, engraving and painting, they had wit enough to make elementary bridges such as we find in Wycollar Dene and on Dartmoor. So it is reasonable to believe that granite was used for bridges when prehistoric farmers began to settle on Dartmoor. Abundant materials lay about to be used freely, brooks and rivers after storms rushed then, as they do now, into angry spates; sheep and cattle were very small, and could not feed always on the same plots or patches of pasture land. To take them over running water, too deep to be forded, must have been often necessary. Even late in the Middle Ages, when England's wealth came mainly from home-grown wool, sheep were tiny compared with our own, as Thorold Rogers proved. Yet it is reasonable to suppose that some improvement had been given by breeding to the size of sheep between the Neolithic and Medieval periods. And it is always essential to think of all bridges in relation to the phases of social life by which they have been retained.

In this brief outline I can do no more than name a few of the natural bridges which have been employed as models. Every schoolboy in the country has crossed a brook upon a fallen tree, and also along the sturdy branch of a tree growing by the waterside. Each of these natural bridges was used, and then copied, first by prehistoric men, and then by all later generations in all parts of the world. Suspension bridges gained their presence in man's handicraft partly from big branches of trees that spanned rivers and gullies, partly from those strongly entwined stems of creeping plants that grew in deep forests and connected one tree with another. Similarly, when prehistoric men had learnt to put two or three fallen trees side by side across a stream, they made their first important timber bridge, with some breadth, and easy to improve with a footway of sods, reeds and the softer species of shrubs.

But Nature's most important bridge, her arch of stones, remained unimitated through immense periods of time. Still, the earliest archways made by human hands were certainly inspired by such lofty natural things as the Rock Bridge in Virginia and the Pont d'Arc over the Ardeche, in France, whose archway rises 34 metres from water-level and has a span of 59 metres. In other words, the first arches in masons' work were made with stones laid in horizontal courses that jutted out one beyond another, just as Nature's archways in stratified rocks have a succession of layers.

Consider the many types of primitive bridges that the Romans came upon during their conquests and colonisations. Wherever they settled they formed a wonderful system of highways and byways, with bridges of many sorts, and marvellous aqueducts also. What a pity it is that Rome left in Britain no such memorials of her enchanted masonry! The New Port at Lincoln is Roman, but mean and poor compared with majestic relics of Roman rationality which are to be seen in Italy and Spain and France.

As for the main reason, I think it expedient to believe that they used generally in Britain for bridges the materials easiest to work and most plentiful in most places, namely, timber; for England in Roman times, and through many centuries after, was mainly a land of forests and fens and wastes. To throw timber bridges over brooks and rivers was comparatively simple work, whether the piers were made of oak piles or of stone slabs; and footways could be made level across these bridges, continuing the straight directness of the Roman roads. In arched bridges of stone, on the other hand, there was generally a slope upwards to the centre of a bridge, then a slope downwards, as in most medieval examples.

Here and there in Britain a bridge is called Roman, as at Crieff, Perthshire, and also in hilly districts of Lancashire, along minor roads of great age. They are all single-arched, rustically simple and picturesque, and I refer to two here. One near Colne, Clitheroe, on an ancient horse-track, may be something more than Romanesque in a lowly rustic manner. The arch has no masonry above it, but the footway is covered by stones easy to replace when they are outworn.

One frequent fault in Roman bridge building was repeated habitually during the Middle Ages, so I think we may certainly assume that a good many important bridges of stone, truly Roman, have perished in England since the Norman Conquest. I refer to piers, which were so bulky that they were troublesome in all narrow British rivers, causing inundations during seasons of spate. Old London Bridge, with her street of houses and her fine Chapel of S. Thomas, was really a perforated dam, which became a very bad obstruction when some archways were, in an unfortunate manner, allowed to be occupied by water-wheels.

Only a few houses now remain on British bridges. William Pulteney's bridge at Bath is an experiment of the eighteenth century, for example, and about twenty-five years ago the crippled old buildings on the High Bridge at Lincoln were very well restored under the direction of two architects. Here and there, again, a mill may be seen either on or very near a high-road bridge; there is one in Sussex on the road from Midhurst to Easebourne.

Whether you study a fine Elizabethan bridge, such as the Wilton Bridge, Ross-on-Wye, or a good example from the days of Henry V, notably Abingdon Bridge and its long and delightful ballad, strive always to see in imagination how wayfarers of old moved over it to and fro, each generation with its altering customs and costumes and wheeled carriages and carts.

Now that films are fully in vogue it is to be hoped that every county will show in moving pictures how the generations have used a picturesquely old or ancient bridge. Let us all see how the medieval pilgrims prayed in such bridge chapels as those at Wakefield, Rotherham and Derby; how men-at-arms and archers also, on the way towards a battle, went singing and tramping over a fortress bridge; or take the beautiful and ribbed Twizel Bridge over the Till in Northumberland, for ever famous in its relation to Flodden Field and to Sir Walter Scott's "Marmion":

Next mom the Baron climb'd the tower
To view afar the Scottish power
Encamped on Flodden edge;
The white pavilions made a show
Like remnants of the winter snow.
Along the dusky ridge.

By and by it is seen that there is unusual movement among the English:

The Scots beheld the English host
Leave Barmore Wood, their evening post,
And heedful watched them as they crossed
The Till by Twizel Bridge.

Here, then, is one picture for a thrilling film! And the more diligently our counties try to illustrate by films the historic life along British highways and our rivers, the readier we shall be to understand the life and times of our forefathers.

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