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Last month we posted a photographic essay featuring ten of Oxford’s historic bridges.
Here’s the full Story:

There’s really only one place to start: Grandpont. Big bridge. The name says it all. The giant blocks of corallian ragstone which underpin it were hewn and levered into place nearly a thousand years ago at the command of Robert d’Oilly, henchman to William the Conqueror. On top of them was laid a massive causeway, rippling south across the marshlands (along what is now the Abingdon Road, as far as Redbridge) with perhaps as many as forty arches.

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It was one of Norman England’s most ambitious engineering schemes. It proclaimed the importance of Domesday Oxford – and of this intersection in particular: the great crossing from Northampton to Southampton, the moment when the River Cherwell meets the River Thames. A confluence, a barrier, and a gateway. Doubtless there had been some kind of crossing place here long before; but it was the Normans who fixed it for ever in stone.

Castles were central to the Normans’ all-conquering project. The vital Thames crossing which marked the western approach to the city was heavily guarded and fortified. A giant mound was piled up, over fifty feet in height, crowned with a keep and encircled by a moat. Running alongside was a mill, built to harness the power of the streaming current. The original bridge has long since disappeared but you can sometimes conjure up the ghost of its presence as you stand on Quaking Bridge under the brooding shadow of St George’s tower.

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To the East stands a bridge over Oxford’s other major waterway, the Cherwell. What the Normans called Petit Pont conveyed traffic from the High Street, through the gated town walls, over the river and off towards London. Magdalen Bridge is a later version, widened, lengthened, strengthened and gentrified as part of an eighteenth-century initiative to cleanse the streets of Oxford and make them ‘more commodious’. Its architect was John Gwynn (1713-86) who, a few years earlier, had drawn up plans for the building of Oxford’s famous covered market.

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The last decade of the eighteenth century witnessed the arrival of the Oxford Canal, and with it a series of small, hump-backed bridges numbered in sequence all the way from its northernmost junction at Hawkesbury on the Coventry Canal. For fifty years this was one of the busiest watercourses in the country, lugging pottery, slate, and, above all, coal from the Midlands to London – changing forever the destiny of Oxford in the process. Its best-known crossing is bridge number 243: the dramatic moment where the canal splits to join the River Thames via a lock into Castle Mill Stream and the Sheepwash Channel.

Much has been written about the railway Swing Bridge which followed half a century later. Remarkably, it is the only movable bridge along the entire course of the River Thames apart from Tower Bridge; and thanks to the sterling work of the Oxford Preservation Trust it will shortly pivot again as it did in its hey day – even if the railway track and train station that accompanied it have long since gone.

It is hard nowadays to imagine that, less than a century ago, one had to climb aboard a ferry to cross the river at Donnington. In 1937 a pedestrian bridge was constructed, and then, in 1962, a road bridge comprising a single slab of reinforced concrete 170 feet in length. The Wikipedia description is suitably lumpen::

It is constructed of a reinforced concrete deck slab cast integrally with 10 pre-stressed concrete legs triangulated to meet the hinges enclosed within the abutments. The abutments are clad externally with precast concrete units faced with Criggion Green and Blue Shap stone and the fascias of the bridge are calcined flint.

Another crossing is remembered in the name of the road (and bridge) that ran between Oxford and Marston, close to the present-day Victoria Arms. Written records of a ferry here go back to 1279; and the imagined record stretches far further into the mists of deep time. The thrumming road which replaced it was built as recently as 1971.

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The coming of the motor car changed everything. Within a few years the watery peninsula of Oxford was girdled by a giant concrete Ring Road. In the words of one wit, the city of dreaming spires became the city of screaming tyres, and central Oxford was relegated to ‘Cowley’s Latin Quarter’. An incongruous bridge over the A40 at Cutteslowe is one of the few concessions to Oxford’s cyclists. Thank goodness two-wheeled travel is making a comeback, and there is talk of low-traffic neighbourhoods. Yet still the crazed road-building continues. Carfax gets ever closer to the Bicester Designer Outlet and the fields which once swathed and gave shape to our city are being buried beneath concrete, never to be recovered.

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Mercifully for pedestrians seeking to escape the world of tarmac and fumes there are still several charming footbridges scattered in and around Oxford. One of the best known and most distinctive is that which arches over the University Parks. Others include: the rainbow and bailey bridges over Port Meadow; the old gasworks bridge linking St Ebbes to what is now Grandpont nature reserve; the white-painted crossing at the confluence of the Cherwell and the Thames; and, of course, the picturesque stone bridge at Iffley Lock.

The most photographed bridge of all is one few of us will ever get the chance to traverse. Not the causeway which vaults Headington Hill, nor the enigmatic wooden construction across the river from the Trout Inn. We refer of course to the one and only Bridge of Sighs. It is curiously misnamed given that the Venetian bridge it most closely resembles is the Rialto. You have to be a member of Hertford College to use it, alas. But anyone can photograph it. And we do – in our thousands.

Sincere thanks to David Priestman for the Featured Image of the Old Gasworks crossing, and to Chris Andrews for the images of Grandpont and Magdalen Bridge.

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Our recent bridges Story prompted questions as well as answers. The first came from eminent olive-grower, aviator and text-designer Nick Allen, who threw down a topological challenge to Morris Oxford readers. Answers on a postcard please!

Were one to consider Oxford as a series of islands framed by the Isis, the Cherwell and the Canal – not to mention a few lesser streams – perhaps there is scope to consider the city’s own version of the Königsberg bridge problem? – NA.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Bridges_of_Königsberg

The challenge posed by Professor Joanna Innes, author of the brilliant Life in the Floodplain blog, is arithmetical and straightforward: Can anyone count seven bridges on the Botley Road?

Supposedly – though I’m not sure of the age or authenticity of the claim – what is now the Botley Road was once called Seven Bridges Road. That name must post-date the sixteenth century, since only the construction of the Bullstake bridge by the first Master of Corpus Christi College made it possible for the causeway over the floodplain to head due west from Oxford towards the hamlet of Botley: until then it is said that the route turned south west, down what is now Ferry Hinksey Lane, to the ferry by North Hinksey (now a footbridge). I can’t count as many as seven bridges myself.

After new infrastructure development associated with the turnpiking of the road in the 1760s, you could start with Pacey’s Bridge over the Castle Mill stream in the new road now called Park End St (which links into the road still called New Road), then Osney Bridge over the Osney mill stream / River Thames, then what the Victoria County History calls Frideswide Bridge (by the church), then Bullstake Bridge (site of a ‘wharf’ on a late nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey map), then something that appears on the same map as the seven-arched bridge but is no longer distinguishable – perhaps the land has been effectively drained – then the Botley bridge over the Seacourt stream, where the Botley mill once stood. That’s still only six, though. – JI

The third question, raised by Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, is perhaps the most intriguing of all:

I had no idea that the Grandpont scheme was so extensive and expensive. I’ve long been fascinated by the later but remarkably prodigious Tudor engineering scheme which is now the Botley Road. It has occurred to me that it might have been one of the factors in the city accepting the ruthless moving of the new Cathedral from Osney to Christ Church. Demolishing a cathedral in the 1540s would have freed a lot of stone precisely on site for the causeway and considerably reduced any local miffedness. Thoughts? – DM

Mention of Donnington Bridge prompted thoughts from Stephanie Jenkins (with thanks for the photo) and Liz Woolley.

Those who remember the colourful figure of Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) may be interested in this plaque stating that on 22 October 1962, a year before he disclaimed his peerage, he opened Donnington Bridge. I don’t think many people cross the bridge on foot, and I suspect the majority of Morris Oxford readers might never have seen it. – SJ

The Donnington Bridge of 1962, replaced a high-arched concrete footbridge which had been built in 1937 to replace the ferry [https://www.southoxfordhistory.org.uk/grandpont-and-south-oxford-through-time/twentieth-century-development#img2]. Weirs Lane led originally to the Weirs paper mill [https://www.southoxfordhistory.org.uk/grandpont-and-south-oxford-through-time/twentieth-century-development#img1] and to a footbridge over the weirs [https://www.southoxfordhistory.org.uk/grandpont-and-south-oxford-through-time/twentieth-century-development#img4] on a loop of the river which rejoins the main Thames further south at Kennington. From 1897 there was a free punt ferry to take people across the river to Iffley. Much earlier there had been a ford crossing Weirs mill stream, lining up with the Roman road which came down Boars Hill and past where Red Bridge is now, on its way towards Alcester (see M Henig & P Booth, Roman Oxfordshire [Sutton, 2000]). The Donnington Bridge of 1962 was the first road bridge to be constructed over the Thames for five centuries, enabling motor traffic to cross the river here for the first time – and meaning that Weirs Lane ceased to be a cul-de-sac.” – LW

Never mind two hours, let alone two years: here’s how to build a medieval bridge in 58 seconds!

 

Here’s a close-up showing the deteriorating condition of the Bailey Bridge, together with a fuller article about its history. Thanks, again, to Peter Smith.
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What a contrast! Two pedestrian bridges: one erected in less than two hours, the other scheduled to be closed for two years. Our thanks to Peter Smith and Bruce Hugman for these very different engineering tales.

The Bailey Bridge at the southern end of Port Meadow has an important and interesting story to tell. 100ft long and constructed of modular steel, it was erected in less than two hours one Sunday morning in September 1947 to replace a wooden footbridge which had been washed away in the great floods six months earlier. Named after its inventor, Donald Bailey, and put together like Meccano, such bridges had become famous during the latter stages of WW2 especially following the D-Day landings of 1944. The media at the time heralded it as a ‘Wonder Bridge’ and General Eisenhower declared it to be one of the three most important engineering and technological developments of WW2.

It has now given nearly 75 years of great service to the walkers and cyclists who regularly traverse the Meadow and Thames Path. Sadly, these bridges are becoming rarer, and ‘our’ wonder bridge is now looking rather neglected. It has recently been nominated to go onto the Oxford Heritage Asset Register, so we’ll see if its 75th anniversary year goes some way towards raising community awareness of its fascinating story and importance, recognising its local and national heritage value and, ideally, securing a commitment to some long overdue TLC from the County Council responsible for its upkeep. – PS

What is now the Grandpont pedestrian bridge was built in 1927 to carry pipes between the two sites of the Oxford gasworks. It was later used as a footbridge for workers (and then the general public). Its maintenance was neglected for years. A long-overdue survey by the County Council in 2021 suddenly declared it unsafe and it was peremptorily closed, with padlocked gates, railings – and no advance warning or consultation with local people. There was talk of its complete removal, and then the possibility of replacement or renovation. The latest news is that the County Council have invited constructors to tender for the contract to repair the bridge and that the costs will be discussed in the February budget round. We have to assume that the remedial work is not yet guaranteed and that, even if it takes place, it will be 2023 or later before the bridge might be in use again. Parents taking their children to and from school, mothers with prams and buggies, shoppers of every age, pedestrians and cyclists going to work or following Sustrans Route 5, locals and visitors walking the towpath, all now have to take a diversion upstream to cross by the gasworks railway bridge, or downstream by Folly Bridge. It is a source of frustration for thousands of local people who were used to taking the shortcut from Grandpont to Westgate and into town. – BH

Nothing escapes the eagle eyes of Stephanie Jenkins (photograph) and Colin Bundy (text). Our thanks to both.

A postscript to the picture that heads your blog. Originally erected in the 1850s or 1860s, and then restored about 30 years ago (from memory), the plaque that records its origins has an endearing error. The cast-iron lettering declares that it was funded BY PUBLIC SUBSRIPTION. I’ve always found it rather poignant that they went to the trouble to commemorate it – and got it wrong! I can never pass it without thinking of the missing’ C’. – CB

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