Anyone travelling through the Yorkshire Dales will find themselves crossing a stream or river at one point or another. A safe river crossing point was so important that sometimes settlements grew up around them, such as Grinton on the fast flowing River Swale. Today there are hundreds of fine stone bridges that carry us safely on our way but in the past crossing water could be a hazardous, occasionally life-threatening experience.
The earliest river crossings were probably fords. These were places where the river or stream ran shallowly and the surface of the riverbed might be paved or at least worn flat. Place names with the Anglo-Scandinavian name ‘Wath’ in them indicate sites where there were fords. Such fords could be dangerous as William Camden wrote in 1582 after fording the River Wharfe “…for, it hath such slippery stones in it that a horse can have no sure footing on them, or else the violence of the water carryeth them away from under his feet”. The name ‘Slape Wath’ meaning slippery ford was given to a crossing of the fast flowing stream in Whitfield Gill near Askrigg. Funeral processions carrying coffins along the Corpse Ways in Swaledale and Wharfedale faced several hazardous fords. One group actually lost their corpse in the swollen waters of the Wharfe in the 15th century while on their way to the burial ground in Arncliffe. Scabba Wath was a well-known ford on the Corpse Way in Swaledale.
The answer was to build bridges. Romans certainly built bridges elsewhere, but there is no archaeological evidence for any of that date in the Dales so far. From Norman times, monastic houses such as Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory had been acquiring land in the Dales. They raised sheep, horses and cattle and came to be very wealthy as a result of shrewd business deals. The trade in fleece was an international one and Fountains moved large quantities of it from their Malham Moor estates through Kilnsey Grange and on to the Abbey. The route crossed the River Wharfe at Conistone and the Abbey built a bridge wide enough to carry wagons probably on or near the site of the present road bridge. In 1457, the Fountain’s Abbey Bursar’s Book records the expenditure of a sum of money “for labour on the bridge at Ketylwell”. Thus it seems likely that the monasteries were the first bridge builders in the Dales. An example of one of these monastic bridges is Bow Bridge near Askrigg. It dates to the early 13th century with its diagnostic ribbed arches. It was probably built by Jervaulx Abbey who owned estates in Upper Wensleydale.
The few people to record travels in the Dales in the 16th and 17th centuries paid particular attention to the crossing of rivers. Clearly whether by bridge or ford, it was a notable event. William Camden for instance having survived crossing the slippery ford described above makes special mention of the stone bridge being built by Sir William Craven at Burnsall. The first bridges in the Dales may not have all been built of stone. No ancient timber ones have survived but we know they existed. When Gargrave bridge was rebuilt in 1638 stone had to be used: “It must of necessite be so because there is no tymber in that part of the country fitt for that work”.
By the 17th century, the first maps to include main roads through the Dales were being drawn. John Ogilby produced his famous ‘ribbon’ maps in the late 17th century and he recorded stone bridges where they appeared. Running along the southern boundary of the National Park, the York to Lancaster road drawn by Ogilby records nearly all the bridges as being of stone.
The nature of rivers in the Dales is such that even stone bridges seem to have been regularly destroyed or damaged by floods. When this happened it was sometimes difficult to raise the money to rebuild or repair them. Originally it would have been the responsibility of the lord or monastic house that owned the land to repair any bridges on it. By the 16th century, responsibility had passed to the parishes many of who could not or would not look after their bridges. Those that didn’t, ended up in front of the local Justices at the Quarter Sessions. Hubberholme Bridge in Langstrothdale was the subject of these proceedings in 1693 when it was recorded as being in “great ruyne and decay”. In 1530, a Statute was passed asking Justices of the Peace to take note of “all manner of annoyances of bridges broken in the highways to the damage of the King’s liege people”. If someone could not be found to repair the offending bridge, then the whole cost had to be levied on the local district. This situation continued until the 18th century. Cowgill Bridge in Dentdale for instance was repaired in 1702 “at the charge of the West Riding”.
While the highways along the valleys tended to languish for want of repair work by the local parishes, packhorse routes, which followed upland tracks from valley to valley, were flourishing. Horses could go where wheeled vehicles could not and packhorse trains were an important form of transport for goods and raw materials in the Dales from monastic times right through until the early 19th century. Fast flowing upland streams were usually crossed by fords, but where the sides were too steep or rocky a bridge would be built.
Packhorse bridges are sometimes hard to identify because they were often altered in later years and even if not it is not always clear what a bridge’s original purpose was just by looking at it. Most packhorse bridges were narrow and built without parapets or at least with low ones, in order not to impede the packhorses carrying goods in side slung panniers. A good, unmodified example spans Crook Gill in Wharfedale with another well-known example to be found in Linton village also in Wharfedale. Other packhorse bridges have been altered over the years. Many have had parapets added for safety and others have been widened as traffic increased. Artlegarth Beck packhorse bridge in the Westmorland Dales is an example which has had parapets added.
Another type of much simpler bridge was built to carry more local traffic in the Dales. Clapper bridges made from large slabs of stone can still be found on footpaths in and around villages in the Dales. Malham has several including Moon Bridge. Austwick has Pant Bridge (or Little Bridges) and Flascoe Bridge, both made from Helwith slate.
The Turnpike Trusts of the 18th century were responsible for building or widening several older stone bridges such as in Hebden as part of the Grassington-Pateley Bridge Turnpike. Here the turnpike was never very successful and by 1827 the turnpike bridge had been taken down and replaced by a larger one built by the County of West Riding. In the North Riding, John Carr was principal surveyor of bridges and he built several county bridges there which still survive as a testament to his skill. One such was Yore Bridge near Bainbridge, built by him in 1793 for the sum of £884.
An interesting survival from the 19th century is the numerous bridge liability markers that can be seen around the old West Riding County. They lie each side of road bridges indicating where county highway responsibility for the bridge started and ended. Beyond the marker, local highway districts were responsible for maintaining the road surface. One type was a small stone marker carved with a cross. Examples can be seen either side of Dibble’s Bridge east of Hebden. Another type was made of cast iron with the initials ‘WR’ an example of which can be seen at the end of the south parapet of Grassington Bridge.
Wright, Geoffrey N (1985) Roads and Trackways of the Yorkshire Dales Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing