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The Old Bridges of Bridgwater
Over the River Parrett

The modern late Victorian bridge

It is difficult to say with any confidence when the first bridge of Bridgwater was constructed. Opinion is divided on the meaning of the 'Bridg' element of the name Bridgwater. At face value it might be taken as bridge, suggesting that the early settlement grew from a river crossing. However Dunning suggests that the name is likely to derive from either the Norse for quay or the Old English for gangplank. Even if the name does refer to a river crossing, the old English 'bridge' simply meant a man made improvement to a river crossing, rather than anything more substantial.

It is possible that the first proper bridge was constructed by William Briwerre, around 1200, the man who founded Bridgwater as a town and built the large castle. While Briwerre was spending large sums on the castle and employing skilled workers to build it, it would seem likely that he would have a bridge built as well. The bridge would be the last easy crossing point on the River Parrett before the sea (save for the fording point at Combwich, which could only be used at low tide) and also as far inland as sea traffic could go, meaning all goods would have to be unloaded at Bridgwater. Both road and river traffic could thence be charged for the privilege and Briwerre would have a lucrative earner.

Without royal investment, or a noble as vastly wealthy as Briwerre, it is unlikely that a bridge could have been attempted at an earlier date as there simply would not have been the money available to build something capable of withstanding the torrents and tidal boar of the River Parrett. Harrison's study of Medieval bridges suggests stone was always preferred as a building material compared to wood unless the higher capital requirements could not be met. Briwerre's bridge would have consisted of strong stone piers set into the river bed, with a timber roadway spanning the gaps.

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An interpretation of Bridgwater's first bridge. The gatehouse is purely hypothetical, it might have acted as an outwork for the castle.

The sixteenth century antiquarian John Leland reported that locally the bridge was attributed as being started by Briwerre and completed by John Trivet. Trivet gave a large sum of money for construction and was completed in 1400. This would fit with Harrison's study of medieval bridges where it seems often that thirteenth century stone and timber bridges would be completed with stone arches in the fifteenth century.

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The Bridge of Trivett, 1790 after John Chubb

The Bridge that Trivett paid to be completed was recorded by Chubb in the 1790s. It once bore the Trivet arms on the side, although these were not apparent on Chubb's paintings. It is likely they were removed along with the whole central arch of the bridge during the Civil Wars in the 1640s, when a drawbridge was put in its place. The arch was presumably rebuilt after the wars.

There are mentions of at least three tenements on the bridge. Whether they were literally built onto the bridge or were just very close nearby is unclear. It was certainly not unusual to find houses, shops and even chapels built on the top of medieval bridges, although Bridgwater's bridge was probably too narrow to support such structures.

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A hypothetical sketch of how houses might have been built above the bridge, if at all.

The stone bridge was removed in 1795 when a new iron bridge was constructed, the forerunner of the bridge of today, built in 1883. It proved difficult to remove the old stone piers and they remained for a number of years as convenient moorings for ships.

The bridge of 1795

Lawrence, History of Bridgwater, (2005)
Powell, Bridgwater in the Later Days, (1908)
Dilks, Bridgwater Borough Archives 1200-1377, (1933)
Leland, Itinerary, Chandler, J., ed. (1998)
Sprigge, Anglia Rediviva (1647)
Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, (2004)

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