Spanning Proud: The Evolution of Barnstaple’s Long Bridge.

Seventeenth century painting of Barnstaple. Panoramic view showing the river, town bridge and sailing ships.

Barnstaple from Sticklepath © MBND/North Devon Athenaeum.

'...origins of the Long Bridge are lost to time'.

As can be seen from the countless photographs, postcards and paintings that dot the collection, the Barnstaple Long Bridge has long been a focal point of life in the town. Although hard to imagine Barnstaple today without this highly trafficked lifeline, there was indeed a time where this now imposing structure could accommodate little more than a one-way trickle of pedestrians (and maybe a pack-horse at a push!) This is the story of how this mighty medieval bridge was modernised as the town and technology evolved around it.

The exact origins of the Long Bridge are lost to time as there are no surviving records detailing its construction. The earliest known reference to the bridge at Barnstaple is from the 13th century, when lord of the manor, Sir Henry de Tracey, endowed it with funds and bought ‘pardon to the bridge.’ After de Tracey was excommunicated in 1272 (apparently due to a matter connected with Tawstock Church) and later pardoned, his buying pardon to the bridge meant that any further persons who donated funds received a blessing from the church. This resulted in a steady stream of endowments between 1303 and 1587 which helped facilitate repairs in 1311 and 1333.

It is known to have been originally constructed in stone and consisted of 16 arches, each between 18ft and 23ft in width, resulting in a total span of 520ft. Curiously, Town Clerk, Philip Wyot, stated in his diary (1589) that the final three arches (known as the Maiden Arches) were originally of timber and later replaced in stone, however a plan of 1584 showing all the arches in stones seems to refute this. The name persists and is thought to reference the maiden ladies of the town that provided funding through weaving and teaching, or less fancifully, is perhaps a corruption of ‘midden’ the term for historical domestic dumps, indicating that the town’s sewage might have drained into the river at this point!

Workmen standing in river renovating the foundations of the long bridge.

Long Bridge repairs (1946) showing ironwork pathways © The Bridge Trust.

Prior to widening in 1786, the bridge itself was exceedingly narrow. It had deep recesses positioned over the cut-waters for pedestrians to stand lest they be bowled over by horses coming in the opposite direction. To support the added weight, segmental arches were constructed between the cut-waters and the pedestrian recesses were incorporated into a widened footpath.

Between 1832 and 1834 further widening work was carried out by James Green, Devon’s first County Bridge Surveyor. By using a system of cantilevered ironwork Green was able to support two 1.2m footpaths either side of the existing structure – widening the roadway to 4.9m.

Also during the 19th century, the London & South Western Railway Co. obtained powers to divert the Long Bridge at the Tawstock end when building a new bridge to accommodate the railway line to Ilfracombe. Apparently, a considerable curve in the bridge was corrected at this time and the LSWR became responsible for its maintenance from the point of the diversion.


To Owners, Drivers, and Persons in charge of Locomotives:

Locomotives in passing over Barnstaple Long Bridge must not exceed a speed of two miles per hour, as provided by the Locomotives Acts. Any person found exceeding such speed will be prosecuted under said Acts. The Penalty for driving at a speed of more than two miles per hour is £10. The length of this Bridge is 253 yards. It therefore must not be driven across by locomotives in less time than 4 minutes 19 seconds.

By Order H. Ashton, Clerk to Barnstaple Long Bridge Trust

View of the long bridge surrounded by snow and ice covered by cranes and scaffolding.

Long Bridge widening (1963) © Terry Hatton.

'[the wood]...was so hard that no craftsmen could work it'.

At the turn of the 20th century modern conveniences were proving troublesome for the Long Bridge. Trustees were becoming increasingly concerned of increased traffic degrading the road surface (which resulted in the across notice of 1905) and this issue was only compounded by exceedingly large vehicles mounting the footpaths – which were only supported by metal brackets that were, by this point, over a century old.

Substantial repairs were also made to the bases of the piers to protect them from further degradation. During this work, large quantities of rough-hewn oak was removed. A gavel and stand were made for the Bridge Trust from these timbers by Messrs Shapland & Petter. The rest was offered to various townsfolk – but as it was so hard no craftsmen could work it! The addition of electric lighting and telephone cables at this time also required substantial alteration.

Wooden gavel and block (in the shape of a bridge) resting on a red leather inlaid table.

The Bridge Trust’s Gavel and Stand © MBND.

In 1961, administration of the Long Bridge passed from the Bridge Trust to the government and it was widened once final time. The exterior was designed to reflect the bridge’s appearance prior to its Victorian makeover and the ironwork was removed (it was widely acknowledged that these railings adversely affected the bridge’s character). If you venture into the bridge underpass today the line of the original bridge is still visible from underneath!

These final works resulted in a 7.3m carriageway flanked by two 1.8m pavements; which is how the bridge stands today quite sufficient for the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, How this landmark of Barnstaple will fare into the far future, who can say. But what is clear is how the bridge is still as important to North Devon now as it was to the early townspeople.

Black and white photograph of Barnstaple long bridge newly opened after renovations in 1963.

The Long Bridge widened and newly opened (1963) © The Bridge Trust.

Written by Tyler Pollard

Editor Adam Murray

Receive news about exhibitions, events and family workshops.