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The Old Bridges of Bridgwater
Over the River Parrett


The Medieval Stone Bridge, about 1790.

It is difficult to say when the first bridge of Bridgwater was constructed. Opinion is divided on the meaning of the 'Bridg' element of the name Bridgwater. The historian Robert Dunning suggests that the name derives from either the Norse for quay or the Old English for gangplank, stressing the possible importance of a quayside to the early community, without the need for any river crossing. These options seem unlikely though: the Norse never settled in this part of Somerset and naming a whole place after a plank seems unlikely. Instead we can probably take the name at face value, literally the settlement was just 'bridge'. Keep in mind how incredibly important a river crossing at this point in the Parratt would have been for east/west travel, then all you need to say is 'the bridge'. Lesser bridges would need modifiers to distinguish them, such as the Highbridge, or the Burrowbridge, and it was only after the Norman Conquest a Normal lord called Walter decided to attach his name to the place. But the first bridge here would not need to have been substantial, the Old English word 'bridge' simply meant a manmade improvement to a river crossing. Whatever it was, it would have been a burdensome undertaking. Given the great depth of the Parrett, the ever-changing tides, the violent boar and the ever-present muddy silt. Anything made of wood would need to be constantly maintained, a stone fording structure would need to be constantly cleared of mud.

It is possible that the first long-lasting bridge was constructed by William Briwerre, around 1200, the man who founded Bridgwater as a town and built the large castle. Given how Briwerre was spending huge sums on the castle and employing skilled workers to build it, it would be likely that he had a bridge built as well at the same time. The bridge would be the last easy crossing point on the River Parrett before the sea (save for the fording point at Combwich, which could only be used at low tide), making it essential for overland travellers. It was also as far inland as sea traffic could go, meaning all goods would have to be unloaded at Bridgwater. Both road and river traffic could thence be charged fees for the privilege and Briwerre would have a lucrative earner.

Without royal investment, or from a wealthy noble like Briwerre, it is unlikely that such a substantial bridge could have been attempted at an earlier date, as there simply would not have been the money available to build something capable of withstanding the torrents and tidal boar of the River Parrett. Harrison's study of Medieval bridges suggests stone was always preferred as a building material compared to wood unless the higher capital requirements could not be met. Briwerre's bridge would have consisted of strong stone piers set into the river bed, with a timber roadway spanning the gaps.

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An interpretation of Bridgwater's first bridge. The gatehouse is purely hypothetical, it might have acted as an outwork for the castle.

The sixteenth century antiquarian John Leland reported that locally the bridge was attributed as being started by Briwerre and completed by John Trivet. Trivet gave a large sum of money for construction and was completed in 1400. This would fit with Harrison's study of medieval bridges where it seems often that thirteenth century stone and timber bridges would be completed with stone arches in the fifteenth century.

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The Bridge of Trivett, 1790 after John Chubb

The Bridge that Trivett paid to be completed was recorded by Chubb in the 1790s. It once bore the Trivet arms on the side, although these were not apparent on Chubb's paintings. It is likely they were removed along with the whole central arch of the bridge during the Civil Wars in the 1640s, when a drawbridge was put in its place. The arch was presumably rebuilt after the wars.



Chubb's 1790s impression of the bridge.

There are mentions of at least three tenements on the bridge. Whether they were literally built onto the bridge or were just very close nearby is unclear. It was certainly not unusual to find houses, shops and even chapels built on the top of medieval bridges, although Bridgwater's bridge was probably too narrow to support such structures. Instead these houses are likely to be the houses joining onto the bridge in Eastover.

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A hypothetical sketch of how houses might have been built above the bridge, if at all.

The stone bridge was removed in 1795 when a new iron bridge was constructed, the forerunner of the bridge of today, built in 1883. It proved difficult to remove the old stone piers and they remained for a number of years as convenient moorings for ships.

The location of the old bridge was roughly where the wide 1883 bridge now stands. The new brige probably covers the site of both the stone bridge and its 1795 iron replacement (which was slightly to the south of the stone one), both older structures being quite narrow. For some reason the compilers of the first Ordinance Survey of the town though it was much further north than it actually was, which we know from old maps and Chubb's illustrations.


The surveyors of the OS recorded the site of the old stone bridge much to far to the north.


The bridge of 1795

The Victorian bridge of 1883

References
Lawrence, History of Bridgwater, (2005)
Powell, Bridgwater in the Later Days, (1908)
Dilks, Bridgwater Borough Archives 1200-1377, (1933)
Leland, Itinerary, Chandler, J., ed. (1998)
Sprigge, Anglia Rediviva (1647)
Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, (2004)


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