A place to cross

Chapter Seven of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

In this chapter Kathryn discusses the bridges that cross the rivers

A Place to Cross

As we know today to our cost, man’s interference in the natural order of things is always questionable.  And the ‘engineering’ of rivers, in the form of man-made structures, has been no different – it has been an attempt to tame the forces of nature for our own convenience.  As seen in the previous chapter, even a little stream like the Rib can be a force of nature when provoked!  And from the archaeological records we know that engineering of one sort or another has taken place on the Rib for at least a thousand years, and probably much more.

It is most likely that the town of Ware takes its name from the Old English wær or weir, and it is known that there were once two weirs there, one of which may have been on the Rib.  Rather like a dam, weirs were designed to alter the flow of water and to prevent flooding, as well as being created to deflect fish into an opening where they can then be caught.  Despite the fact that the Romans had the technology: “Almost without exception when definite examples of timber weirs have been investigated in English waters, they have been found to be Anglo-Saxon or medieval.”  Of course, our old friend the beaver is also a great engineer of all things riverine, and it was probably they that gave man the idea.  So, if dams and weirs (of which we shall see more in the next chapter) are designed to engineer the water flow, what of the human traffic flow?  

Once man (and then horse) had had enough of wading knee- or thigh-deep through the water in order to get to the other side, he must have had the idea of creating a ford.  Occasionally fords may have occurred naturally, but otherwise it would not have been a difficult concept to engineer in shallow water.  We know that they were in place on the Rib by an early date, for, as we’ve already seen, both Bunta and Lott had control of their own fords.  Power came with control, and it’s all too likely that at a time of tribal rivalry this meant that these men were able to control just who came and went through their territory.

Wheeled vehicles also benefitted greatly from fords, so carts were able to carry heavier and heavier loads as the centuries went on.  The Romans had of course also brought bridge technology with them as did the Normans, and so, in places with a good deal of stone, bridges would have become more common.  In our own area of course timber had to suffice.  And this was certainly the case where the Roman Ermine Street crossed the Lea floodplain at Ware.  In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that this crossing even preceded the Romans.

Model of London under Roman rule in AD 85-90, on display at the Museum of London. Steven G. Johnson

A somewhat later example of this can be found in the records for Standon, when in the late 12th century a chap called Ralph Peche gave to the Canons of Waltham Abbey a house “west of the head of the great bridge over the River Rib at Standon”.  We know this was a timber bridge because in 1335 five oak trees were felled in the park for repairs to “the great bridge of Standon”.  So where was this bridge?  Standon village must always have had two crossings over the Rib – one at the north end (once called New Street but now the A120) and one at the south end (now in Paper Mill Lane).  Because the name New Street appears in the records as early as the beginning of the 13th century, it is thought that the original route from Ermine Street to Bishop’s Stortford cut across the south end of the village to join with Stane Street.  Then, when New Street was constructed, possibly with an additional ‘great bridge’, the old route fell out of use.  This cannot be substantiated, but the same name seems to have applied to it in the Quarter Sessions Records for 1635: “That a common bridge called Standon Great Bridge in the parish of Standon, leading thence towards Stortford is in decay and that the inhabitants of the whole county ought to repair it.”

In 1635 the responsibility for the upkeep of this bridge was in the hands of the county as a whole, undoubtedly because of its position on a major roadway.  However, smaller, local bridges were the responsibility either of the parish or the nearest landowner: “That the footbridge over the water sluice at Puckeridge Barres [leading from Puckeridge to Colliers End] in Standon [parish] is in decay, and that Henry Brookes of Standon ought to repair it, by reason of his premises adjoining.”  As well as the upkeep of roads, bridge repairs and re-building were an ongoing nightmare for residents, being very costly.  To that end a man called Thomas Jenyns, a wealthy London Fishmonger, who was formerly of Braughing, left in his 1579 will, £1 for the repair of the bridges in the parish.  This was not an unusual practice, but Thomas may have been the first to specifically mention bridges round here.

Only forty-odd years later, we have an example of what the county paid out in 1621 for Wadesmill Bridge “being new made”, which was £136.[see picture]  Not only were they costly in money, but to life and limb itself, when, in 1674, the bridge over the river at Standon was “in much decay, and that neither horsemen nor other passengers travelling from market to market can pass over there without great peril, several persons having of late fallen through the same into the river there.”!

Possibly for reasons just quoted, medieval bridges were ideal places for chapels to be built so that travellers could leave offerings for a safe journey.  Indeed, the old London Bridge had a chapel to St. Thomas near the centre of it which was completed in 1209.  It was of course destroyed during the Reformation, as was our own local example.  The only known reference to this chapel also appears in the Quarter Sessions records, this time in 1589 when the justices reported one of Standon’s bridges: “called Our Lady Bridge, which is in the highway to Stortford and is in great ruin and decay, which had some time a chapel upon it, and therein a Lady and certain service thereunto did belong with divers offers made unto her, which is now decayed and taken away, which said offerings the Lord of St. Johns did receive, and he made the said bridge.”  ‘The lady’ in the chapel would have been a statue of St. Mary, and it’s clear that the whole thing was built and maintained by the Order of the Knights of St. John who had a Preceptory in Standon.  From a later entry, it appears that the county were subsequently picking up the costs, following the Dissolution of the Order.

In some places both bridge and ford were kept – a ford for carts (and later cars) and a bridge for people as at Standon’s Paper Mill.  This may also have been the case at Latchford, where a bridge is mentioned in the early 17th century – being used to distinguish ‘Thomas Crowche the elder of the bridge of Lottesford’ and another man of the same name.  Of course it’s impossible to say which ones were foot-bridges and which road-bridges at this time.  This was also the case at Wadesmill where originally there was a ford alongside a medieval bridge.  Members of the Gardiner family of Wadesmill left money in their 16th century wills for building and repair work on the bridge.  And north of Braughing Station on the B1368 there is of course the well-named Ford Bridge!  There was also such a thing as a ‘causey’ or causeway, a sort of half-way house between a ford and a bridge.  Griggs Bridge, by Braughing’s War Memorial, was recorded as such in the early 17th century – one of several along the river.

There are of course many road bridges along the length of the rivers, some of them older than others.  Ford Bridge in Braughing, which is Grade II listed, seems to be the oldest, having been built of brick in 1766 and replacing a 17th century wooden one.  That at Aspenden, as well as the one at Wadesmill, are also both Grade II listed.  Wadesmill is the oldest of these two, being built in 1824/5 and Aspenden in 1878. 

Wadesmill bridge

Wadesmill Bridge was not only re-built, but, for road safety reasons, was moved slightly to bypass the original main street.  Despite the plaque on Buntingford Bridge giving a date of 1766, this was in fact the date of the previous bridge which was rebuilt in 1936.  It’s interesting that both Buntingford and Braughing bridges were re-built in 1766, which presumably indicates that both were destroyed during the floods of October 1762 mentioned in the previous chapter.  In 1858 Standon’s two-arched iron bridge was also destroyed by flooding, and it’s known that this iron bridge had itself replaced a brick bridge which, in 1782, had replaced a wooden one!

Once the speed of a cart or carriage was no longer sufficient for man, then came the railways and a new type of engineering was required to cross our little river, which it did by a timber bridge at Standon close to the old Paper Mill, now removed. [photo]  This was of course the Buntingford branch line which was opened in 1863 and closed in 1965.  Due to the directness of the railway as opposed to the erratic nature of the Rib, the railway had to cross the Rib once more just south of Bingles Wood in Braughing, but for some stretches it ran alongside.  By coincidence, the position of this crossing had been helped enormously by the removal of the confluence further south, otherwise it would have headed straight through it!  Nevertheless, this particular bridge presented huge problems in its construction.  The site chosen was called ‘Bog Ford’, which encapsulates the problem!  The first bridge was unsuccessful and had to be removed, and the construction of the second involved going down a total of 65 feet to reach solid ground.

One final piece of engineering that the Rib valley as a whole managed to escape was a reservoir!  In 1851 plans had been drawn up by the River Lea Trust for this to be situated between Standon Lordship and Swangles Farm near Cold Christmas.  It was also intended to be linked by a tunnel to the proposed ‘River Ash Reservoir’, all of which was to have been for supplying London with water.  Residents of Barwick and other places in between will be thankful that this never came about, or they wouldn’t be living there now! 

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.