Monks Bridge, in West Cumbra, is the oldest packhorse bridge in the county. The bridge crosses Friar Gill – a narrow chasm etched into the landscape by the flowing waters of the River Calder. The water is also very cold, as my feet can testify. Brr!
- The river, old as time itself, flows through a timeline from prehistoric settlements on the high fell through the old abbey and then on to a modern day nuclear plant and into the sea.
The bridge is said to be medieval and associated with Calder Abbey, but probably rebuilt C17 or C18. The bridge is constructed from sandstone blocks, with thick sandstone slabs forming a pathway. The pointed arch spans 18 ft, and is 3 ft. wide. Monk’s Bridge is a Grade II Listed Building.
Stone began to be used instead of timber in the 12th century and became increasingly common in the 14th and 15th centuries. Many medieval bridges were repaired, modified or extensively rebuilt in the post- medieval period. During the medieval period the construction and maintenance of bridges was frequently carried out by large estates and the Church, especially monastic institutions which developed long distance packhorse routes between their landholdings.
Monks Bridge is a narrow and beautifully formed stone arch bridge. It has no parapet, handrail or side stones so there would be no obstructions for a horse or pony crossing the bridge with wool, farm produce, or even mead.
Some stone built medieval bridges still survive. These can be classified into three main types based on the profile of the arch which is typically pointed, semi-circular or flattened. A common medieval feature is the presence of stone ashlar ribs underneath the arch. The bridge abutments and revetting of the river banks also form part of the bridge. Where medieval bridges have been altered in later centuries, original features are sometimes concealed behind later stonework, including remains of earlier timber bridges.
Bridges were common and important features of medieval towns and the countryside and allowed easy access along a well developed road and trackway system. However, only around 16 largely unaltered medieval single span bridges have so far been recognised to survive in England. All these are considered to be of national importance.
- Following my visit to Monks Bridge, I then proceeded to visit an ancient Bronze Age village, on Tongue How.