(Landacre Bridge in the landscape, © ENPA 2013)
The simplest way of crossing a waterway is by using a ford site. Many of the bridges that now span Exmoor's rivers are situated next to ford sites, such as at the Barle Bridge in Dulverton, Allerford Packhorse Bridge (pictured right) and Gallox Bridge in Dunster. Due to their importance, ford sites are often associated with settlements. Fords can become impassable when there has been heavy rain andthe river becomes higher, meaning that the people and goods crossing the river are likely to get wet. This gave rise to the construction of bridges; for instance, it is suggested that Tarr Steps, Exmoor's most famous bridge, was built in the 15th or 16th Century to provide dry access to a water grist mill that was situated close to the Barle.
There are many different types of bridge and ways in which these can be constructed across a waterway. Perhaps the most basic form is the clapper bridge, such as Tarr Steps. These are constructed from flat stone slabs ("clappers"), either resting directly on the river banks or supported by piers rising from the riverbed. These may be protected against the water's current by placing raking stones against them. Because of the low height and simple construction method, this type of bridge is susceptible to damage from fast flowing flood water and detritus in the water; however, it is easily repaired, depending on the size of the stones used. A recent study by Hazel Riley (see bibliography) has shown that Tarr Steps has been rebuilt numerous times, even in recent memory.
The form of a bridge tends to reflect the type of traffic that is expected to use it. The smallest bridge type, therefore, is the footbridge. Most are quite humble; however, in the grounds of Dunster Castle is Lovers Bridge, designed by Richard Phelps as part of the 18th Century enhancement of the grounds of the Castle for H.F. Luttrell. It is built in a rustic style, designed to be viewed from the north and with a brick seat built into the parapet, from which the bridge gets its name.
Packhorse bridges are built to carry packhorses across a river or stream and are common across Exmoor, with packhorses in extensive use locally until about 1830. They are generally thought to be of a medieval or early post-medieval date and are usually fairly small and narrow with low or non-existent parapets that are designed not to interfere with the bags the animals were carrying. Examples on Exmoor are generally constructed of stone with a cobbled footway and with one or two arches to allow the river to pass beneath them. Horner Bridge in Luccombe Parish is a noteworthy example in that there are apparent pony trekking routes that lead across the bridge and into the woodland it sits beside. Another site is at Winsford, where there are two packhorse bridges spanning both the Winn Brook (Smithy Bridge) and the River Exe (another bridge near Vicarage Bridge, which was apparently "re-edificed" in 1628). Gallox Bridge (shown right) is mentioned in Dunster Castle documents from 1490.
Road bridges are a larger type of bridge and can be constructed in various materials and forms. In general, however, on Exmoor they are built of stone with the roadway carried across the waterway on a series of arches. An iconic example of this type of bridge is situated at Landacre (banner image), where it has been recorded that the bridge may date back to 1610 or earlier. The bridge has five pointed headed arches, with buttresses on both sides built to deflect the water from each pier. It is known that many of Exmoor's bridges were widened or rebuilt within the last 150 years to accommodate wheeled traffic but following general complaints during the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), a tax of £200 was ordered to be raised in Somerset for the repair of the bridges. Barle Bridge at Dulverton has two date stones on its north face that reflect these periods of change, recording its repair in 1624 and its widening in 1819 by John Stone.
While most older bridges on Exmoor are built of stone, some newer materials have occasionally been employed in their construction and repair. To the north of Dulverton is Marsh Bridge (see image, to right), thought to be 18th Century in date but repaired in 1818-9, again by John Stone. Later, in 1866-7, the central pier was removed by the County Surveyor, Arthur Whitehead and a cast iron section inserted, manufactured by Hennet and Spink of Bridgwater. This part of the bridge features a recurring motif of St Andrew's Cross. More modern bridges often employ reinforced concrete in their construction; an example of this is a 20th Century bridge in Simonsbath, built in 1931 and designed by the County Surveyor of the time, Edward Stead. The bridge carries the old main road across the Ashcombe Stream from the east to where it ran in front of Simonsbath House. Stead was also responsible for several other reinforced concrete bridges across Exmoor, such as Week Bridge, built 1927 and situated in Exton, and Frackford Bridge in Dunster, built in 1913.
Bridges on Exmoor are often subject to damage from flooding and associated debris, as well as more general wear and tear through factors such as weathering. The most significant recent flood event on Exmoor was in August 1952, when many bridges in the area were damaged. This event caused the tragic Lynmouth flood disaster, when the East and West Lyn Rivers rose suddenly and carried large boulders and rocks into the settlement, destroying houses, roads and bridges and causing much loss of life and destitution. Bridges damaged during this event included the Lyn Bridge, Hillsford Bridge and Lyndale Bridge, the latter of which had to be completely replaced (new bridge shown in image to right).
The recent study on Tarr Steps (see bibliography) has confirmed that the bridge has been damaged on a number of occasions; for example, in late November 1939 a large amount of timber and debris became lodged against it, displacing some of the structure, and in late January 1940 the bridge was battered by huge blocks of ice, with the central part completely washed away. Temporary crossings of the Barle, made from rope handrails, the central island and several tree trunks, were constructed under the supervision of Rev Sweetapple-Horlock. The bridge itself was again repaired in March 1941 by the construction of a steel girder bridge, approached by concrete ramps and built directly on the remaining clapper stones. This structure was repaired in 1945, with the bridge finally restored in 1949 by the 116 Army Engineer Regiment, before it was again washed away in the 1952 floods.
Information on Tarr Steps was gathered in response to recent damage caused by flooding in December 2012; however, this was not the only bridge to suffer harm at this time. In Dulverton, the arches under the Barle Bridge were partially blocked by floating debris becoming wedged in them, which caused the surrounding area to be submerged by flood waters. Repair works by Somerset County Council provided the opportunity to view the two date stones on the bridge's north face from the scaffolding (as can be seen in the image, to right). Winsford Bridge also suffered damage during these floods and had to be supported before repairs could be undertaken, as it had been severely undermined.
SEM7601 Allen, NV (1978). 'The Waters of Exmoor'. The Exmoor Press, Dulverton.
SEM8080 Hinchcliffe, E (1994). 'A Guide to the Packhorse Bridges of England'. Cicerone Press, Cumbria.
Huxtable, D (Undated). The Lynmouth flood disaster of 1952. Exmoor National Park Authority website.
SEM8003 Riley, H (2013). 'An Historical and Archaeological Study of Tarr Steps, Exmoor'.