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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.