The Rare Medieval Bridges of Britain

The construction of bridges in medieval Britain was influenced by Roman engineering principles. The Romans had introduced the use of arches and stone construction, a technology that significantly impacted bridge construction in the subsequent medieval period.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the knowledge of bridge building declined, and wooden bridges became more common due to their simplicity in construction and the availability of materials.

However, by the 12th century, as the economy and population began to recover, stone bridges started to reappear. These were often funded by the church or local lords as a demonstration of wealth and power.

Regrettably, owing to their strategic significance, bridges have frequently been prime targets during times of war and conflict. Throughout various confrontations, particularly during World War II, many of the world’s most esteemed medieval bridges were bombed and reduced to ruins.

In France and Germany, in particular, some of the most magnificent medieval bridges were transformed into heaps of rubble. Many of these have since been reconstructed using more contemporary construction techniques.



In medieval times, the robust bridges we now take for granted were uncommon. Most river crossings comprised either fords—places where the water was shallow—or wooden bridges, which were often weak and flimsy.

Constructing a stone bridge was a significant undertaking and required substantial investment from either political figures or affluent merchants.

Bishop Bridge is a medieval bridge across the River Wensum located to the east of Norwich, England. It was built in 1340 and is still in use in the twenty-first century. A gatehouse, completed in 1343, was located on the bridge until 1791.

Moreover, because the construction of bridges served the public good, maintaining them was seen as a charitable act, akin to the repair and upkeep of a church, and philanthropic individuals frequently contributed to their maintenance.

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On the other hand, due to their strategic importance, bridges held considerable economic value, and individuals wishing to cross or transport goods across them were often required to pay a toll. In some ways, bridges functioned similarly to modern customs points at airports.

Monnow Bridge, one of Britain's medieval bridges.
Monnow Bridge is a medieval bridge over the namesake river Monnow in the town of Monmouth, Wales. The existing bridge was completed in the late 13th century. It is the only remaining medieval fortified bridge in Britain.

For those who were not merchants, the toll for crossing bridges was akin to council tax: a payment made to the authorities to facilitate the maintenance of public facilities and infrastructure.

Roles of Medieval Bridges

Medieval bridges fulfilled a variety of roles. It was common for chapels and shops to be constructed upon them, and many were strengthened with towers and ramparts. Some even boasted a drawbridge, a hallmark of medieval ingenuity.

St Ives Bridge, one of Britain's medieval bridges
The Medieval St Ives Bridge and chantry chapel, St Ives, Cambridgeshire

The most renowned of these structures was Old London Bridge, which construction began in the late 12th century under the guidance of a priest named Peter of Colechurch. Completed in 1209, four years after his demise, London Bridge was originally designed to include 19 pointed arches, each spanning 7.2 metres (24 feet) and supported by piers 6 metres (20 feet) wide.

Samuel Scott’s painting shows Old London Bridge in 1757, shortly before the houses were removed

However, challenges in constructing the cofferdams led to variations in the arch spans from 4.5 to 10.2 metres (15 to 34 feet). This inconsistency in construction often necessitated repairs, but despite these issues, the bridge supported a bustling array of houses and shops and endured for more than 600 years before it was eventually replaced.

Construction of Medieval Bridges

Constructing a bridge over water remains a formidable challenge, and despite numerous technological advancements, the fundamental principles have remained unchanged since antiquity. Initially, a cofferdam is built on the riverbed, and the water within this enclosed area is pumped out, revealing the muddy bottom. The bridge’s piers are then constructed on this exposed foundation.

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In the Middle Ages, cofferdams were constructed using multiple rows of logs driven into the mud and made watertight with mud, reinforced by sand. Water was extracted from the pit using a water wheel. It is likely that the subsoil was further stabilised with wooden piles driven into place with a pile driver.

On this base, a wooden foundation grate made from oak beams and planks was laid, secured with large round stones linked by wrought iron bars. With the foundation set, construction of the masonry pillars could begin. To form the arches, wooden falseworks were erected, and precisely cut blocks of sandstone or granite were positioned over these supports.

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After the keystone was placed, the falsework was removed, allowing the arch to stand supported solely by its own weight. The arches were then fortified by adding several layers of stone up to the level of the bridge deck, and finally, the surface was paved with hard rock.

Bridges and the Development of British Grammar

Interestingly, the development of bridges in medieval Britain also had an unexpected impact on the evolution of the English language, particularly its grammar. The naming of bridges and the laws governing their maintenance required precise language to avoid ambiguities in legal documents.

Abbots Bridge, one of Britain's medieval bridges
Abbots Bridge over the River Lark in Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

For instance, the term “bridge” itself evolved from the Old English “brycg,” which originally referred to any form of crossing over water. The need for more specific language led to the development of more complex grammatical structures to describe ownership, responsibility, and location.

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Moreover, the gatherings on bridges for trade and social interaction became melting pots of dialects and languages. This convergence of linguistic varieties contributed to the richness of Middle English and helped standardize grammar usage across different regions.

The Tarr Steps are a clapper bridge across the River Barle, Somerset, that dates back to around 1000 BC.

Legal statutes concerning bridge maintenance were some of the earliest examples of written English used in public administration, contributing to the standardization of the language.

Packhorse Bridges

The Packhorse bridge of Fifehead Neville is one of only a few surviving medieval packhorse bridges in Dorset. The bridge was constructed approximately 800 years ago, in about 1200.

Packhorse bridges are a charming and historically significant feature of the British landscape, particularly prevalent in rural areas that were once vital routes for trade and transportation. These narrow stone bridges were primarily built during the medieval period, though some were constructed as late as the 18th century. Their design and construction reflect the needs of the time, tailored specifically for the passage of packhorses—horses laden with sidebags or panniers carrying goods.

Design and Construction

Typically constructed from local stone, packhorse bridges are characterized by their narrowness, low parapets, and often a single, graceful arch. This arch was usually a semi-circular or slightly pointed design, which provided enough clearance for the small rivers and streams they commonly spanned.

Packhorse bridge, West Luccombe

The narrow width of these bridges—rarely wide enough for vehicles—underscores their primary function for packhorse traffic, which did not require a wide passageway. The low walls or parapets were intentionally designed to accommodate the large panniers on the horses’ backs, preventing the loads from snagging as the horses crossed.

Location and Function

Fifehead Neville Ford through the River Divelish with the Medieval packhorse bridge to the right.

Packhorse bridges were typically located on trade routes, often in remote areas, facilitating the movement of goods between villages and towns. These bridges enabled the transport of various commodities, such as wool, tin, coal, and limestone, which were pivotal to the local economies of rural England. By improving connectivity between remote areas and larger market towns, packhorse bridges played a crucial role in the economic development of their regions.

Historical Importance

The advent of the packhorse bridge marked a significant advancement in medieval infrastructure. Before their existence, crossings were perilous, often limited to fords and stepping stones, which were unreliable and could become impassable in poor weather conditions.

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The construction of permanent stone bridges provided a safer and more dependable way to traverse the landscape, which was particularly important given the often harsh and unpredictable British weather.

Maintenance of Medieval Bridges

Like churches, the esteemed status of bridges ensured that they were periodically improved and occasionally rebuilt to meet contemporary needs; just as cathedrals are rarely the product of a single architectural era, it is common to find bridges that exhibit building styles spanning hundreds of years, which can complicate their dating.

Fortunately, a few reliable indicators of age, such as the shape of the arches and the presence of ribbed vaults, can assist in distinguishing original or, at least, faithfully restored features from later modifications.

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In Exeter, the now disused and incomplete 13th-century Exe Bridge has ended up marooned on a traffic island, but you can still admire its splendid ribbed arches, which alternate between Norman-inspired semi-circular and the pointed arches introduced by Early English church builders.

Exe Bridge, one of Britain's medieval bridges
Exe Bridge, Exeter

By the 1500s, the segmental arch—round but less than semi-circular—allowed for longer spans, which were particularly useful in upland areas prone to flooding that could sweep away bridges with too many piers. At Devil’s Bridge in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, two of the three spans exceed 16 metres, while Twizel Bridge in Northumberland features a single span of approximately 30 metres.

Twizel Bridge, one of Britain's medieval bridges
Said to be one of Britain’s finest medieval bridges, Twizel Bridge was completed in 1511, and was, until 1727, the longest (27 metres) single-span bridge in Britain.

Safety of Medieval Bridges

Bridges were significantly more costly than fords or ferries; however, they offered greater safety, higher capacity, and could be used in most weather conditions. The Romans constructed numerous bridges across the UK, primarily from timber, but none have survived to this day.

Notably, there was a Roman bridge located just below the current site of Cromwell Lock at the head of the tidal section of the Trent.

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The oldest surviving bridges over waterways in Britain are of medieval origin. One of the earliest examples is High Bridge in Lincoln, built around 1160, which carries the High Street over the Witham Navigation.

It is likely that this bridge replaced an earlier timber structure that carried the Roman road Ermine Street, possibly constructed as early as the 1st century AD.

High Bridge on Lincoln High Street. High Bridge was built in the 13th century on Norman foundations. The earliest part of the foundations is thought to date from 1160. The range of shops and houses on the bridge date from the 16th century. It is the only surviving example in England of a medieval bridge carrying shops and houses.

Today, the bridge supports a row of Tudor timber-framed shops. Such bridges were common in the Middle Ages, with the old London Bridge being the most famous example.

Most medieval bridges have been removed over time as they obstructed river flow and hindered shipping. Only High Bridge and Pulteney Bridge in Bath still stand in Britain as waterway bridges with buildings on them.

Pulteney Bridge in Bath. One of only four bridges worldwide to have shops across its full span on both sides, Pulteney Bridge is a stunning example of Georgian architecture.

Glory Hole

High Bridge’s narrow, crooked arch is often referred to as the ‘Glory Hole’, and during the medieval period, it was also known as the ‘Murder Hole’, where it was rumoured that murder victims would be dropped into the river, eventually floating out to sea. The bridge restricts the size of boats that can navigate between the Fossdyke at Brayford Pool and Boston and the sea.

High Bridges crooked arch, often referred to as the Glory Hole, Lincoln.

Ferrybridge in Yorkshire illustrates the evolution from ferry to bridge, located where the Great North Road (the A1) crosses the River Aire. The original bridge was constructed in 1198 but collapsed in 1228, leading to the drowning of crusaders crossing at the time.

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In 1804, a larger bridge designed by architect John Carr of York was built to accommodate increasing traffic on both the road and the Aire and Calder Navigation, which was later replaced by the modern A1 bridge in 1967.

The River Avon has several bridges of medieval origins, posing challenges for both boaters and vehicle drivers. For instance, Bidford Bridge in Bidford-on-Avon, known to Shakespeare as “drunken Bidford”, features a single navigation arch unusually close to one riverbank.

Bidford bridge, one of Britain's medieval bridges
Bidford Bridge

River Medway

Similarly, the navigation arch of the medieval bridge over the River Medway at East Farleigh in Kent is misaligned with the adjacent lock. Dating from the 14th century, it is set among orchards and oasthouses and has been described as ‘the finest bridge in the south of England’. Cromwell’s parliamentary troops crossed it in 1648 en route to battle the Royalists in Maidstone.

Teston Bridge is a Medieval stone bridge over the River Medway. Note the enlarged arch for the benefit of barge traffic.

On the Thames, the oldest bridge is at Radcot, near the junction with the Thames and Severn Canal at Lechlade. This three-arch bridge, believed to date from the early 13th century, now crosses a backwater and slightly predates the New Bridge downstream near the confluence of the Thames and the Windrush.

Radcot Bridge, Radcot. Radcot was once an important village and crossing on the River Thames, which formed the border between the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.

The Nene also boasts some ancient bridges, notably the one at Irthlingborough with 19 arches, constructed during the 14th century.

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On the River Dee in Chester, a bridge recorded in the Domesday Book was rebuilt in 1387 from red sandstone with seven arches, each of varying dimensions. Cambridge offers a unique boating experience along the Backs, the stretch of the River Cam flowing behind several colleges, providing the iconic view of King’s College Chapel. This route is replete with old bridges and punt traffic, hence navigation is only permitted in winter.

Where you can find Medieval bridges in Britain

Medieval bridges are scattered throughout Britain. Here are some notable locations where you can find these ancient structures:

  1. Lake District – This region is home to several picturesque packhorse bridges that were used by horses carrying goods across the rugged terrains. An example is the 17th-century Ashness Bridge near Keswick.
  2. Yorkshire – The region boasts various medieval bridges, such as the ancient bridge at Wycoller which dates back to the 13th century and is part of a charming village setting.
  3. London – While Old London Bridge has been replaced, newer structures have occasionally incorporated remnants of the medieval bridge. London’s environment, rich in history, often reveals layers of its past in various forms.
  4. Durham – The Prebends Bridge in Durham, although built later, in the 18th century, follows the tradition of medieval bridge building and is located in a city with a rich history of medieval architecture.
  5. Scotland – The Brig o’Doon in Ayrshire, made famous by Robert Burns in “Tam o’ Shanter”, is a beautiful medieval bridge that is part of Scotland’s rich historical landscape.
  6. Shropshire – The Ludford Bridge in Ludlow is another excellent example of medieval bridge architecture that has survived through the ages.
  7. Somerset – The medieval bridge in the village of Frome is a notable structure, known for its unique construction and historical significance.
  8. Stratford-upon-Avon – Clopton Bridge, dating back to the 15th century, spans the River Avon and remains a functional roadway bridge, combining historic charm with practical use.
  9. Wales – Wales has numerous medieval bridges, such as the Llangollen Bridge in Denbighshire, which provides a picturesque view over the River Dee.
  10. Cambridge – The city is known for its medieval and later historical bridges crossing the Cam, particularly those that are part of the colleges of Cambridge University, like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College.

We might often overlook them, but medieval bridges have continually provided us with a means to travel across troubled waters.