This is my first post for 2021, and first in a series for #oneplacestudies, #oneplacewednesday and January’s topic of #oneplacelandmarks. I would like to capture, for posterity, memories, knowledge and views of what it is or was like to live in, work in or visit Sticklepath. PLEASE comment on this post or with your thoughts about Sticklepath. I love to hear family stories, especially if backed up with sources or evidence. If this is your first or an occasional ‘visit’ to Sticklepath on the edge of Dartmoor – WELCOME! Please do come again!
There are many bridges on Dartmoor, primarily constructed of the local stone – granite. The earliest and simplest are clapper bridges, a single piece of granite laid across a waterway or gulley. Wider gaps would have required a central column or pier and two slabs, and so on. Many were (and are) tourist attractions, such as Wallabrook. A Clapper Bridge over the Teign, this was a favourite location for a picnic and family day out from Sticklepath in the 1920s, as Phyllis Finch’s album shows:
STICKLEPATH – There is mention of Butter Bridge, built of a massive flat stone, East of the tithe map field of this name in Sticklepath. I have no further information regards this at this time. ( 21/11/1978 King . HER number MDV20388). Any help welcomed!
Wooden bridges were also popular but have survived less well than the stone. Dartmoor ‘Clam’ Bridges were traditionally one or two tree trunks side by side, spanning the waterway, with their top surface levelled and grooves inserted to improve grip. A good clam bridge required major maintenance/replacement every 25-30 years. There was traditionally one hand rail. Many other wooden bridges were of less solid construction. Health and safety has not allowed such structures to continue and chunkier less environmentally sympathetic wood structures have almost completely replaced them. I think the original bridge across the Taw behind the graveyard in Sticklepath, now part of the Tarka trail, may have been a clam bridge. There have certainly been wooden bridges over the Taw in the Ska or Skaigh Valley Woods for many years.
Photos of wooden bridge in the Skaigh valley between Sticklepath and Belstone:
For more examples of Dartmoor Bridges see for example https://dartmoortrust.org/archive/search/Bridge for photos or https://drtomsbooks.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/the-old-bridges-of-devon-autumn-2017a.pdf for photos with brief descriptions.
STICKLEPATH BRIDGE, sometimes called Taw Bridge, is one of many similar 2 – 3 arched Dartmoor granite bridges with cut waters and pedestrian refuges above. Many are very picturesque, often in a wooded valley with opportunity to fish along the banks and usually somewhere to sit and imbibe refreshments, such as Fingle Bridge:
Unfortunately you cross the bridge as you enter Sticklepath almost without noticing, so it doesn’t have this picturesque appeal, especially as the banks have become overgrown (at least when I last visited) and it is difficult to get a full view from a public footpath.
This map shows the flood risk area associated with the upper Taw here. Sticklepath is situated at the lower end of the blue area (https://riverlevels.uk/flood-warning-river-taw-upper-from-sticklepath-to-taw-bridge#.X_Az_y2l1QJ) with Dartmoor the green area at the bottom:
THE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE – Henderson tells us in 1928:
“ A description of the bridge by Green, the county surveyor in 1809, makes its two arches 17 feet in span and the width of the roadway only 14 feet. “This bridge,” he adds, ” being built upon a rock, though rough, is very strong.” A sketch of the bridge and plan made in 1852 shows that the road had been widened to 23 feet. This widening was done on the northern, or lower side, and the cutwater, with its triangular recess, was obliterated. The upper side remained untouched with its two little arches and massive cutwater between them. Thus the bridge remains to-day, and if the widening could be effected on the lower side no harm would be done. The old part of the bridge appears to date from the 17th century, the arches of a nondescript character, as at Fingle Bridge. It is probable, however, that the bridge has been in existence since the 14th century”. ”
Western Times – Friday 24 February 1928 tells us that Mr T.H. Ormston Pearse and Mr J. Pearse submitted objections to the Devon Main Roads Committee their objections to the changing of the pointed arches to rounded arches in the widening of the bridge at Sticklepath. To maintain pointed arches would be more costly and they had been found to be insufficient to take the load of modern traffic. When pressed for an explanation:
“ Colonel Gracey said the bridge had about the weakest form of semi-bastard Gothic arch, and the sub-committee decided there should be an elliptic arch.” The extra cost of at least £300 was a big factor.
However, the Western Times – Friday 20 July 1934, suggests there was more to the story. Mr. Miller explained: “Here the archaeologists claim that the arch is of curious and interesting design. The increased speed and weight of modern traffic had very nearly caused this arch to collapse. The County Engineer averted this by putting in a reinforced concrete saddle, concealed from view, over the arch, which has the effect of relieving the arch of all pressure, of whatever kind. The widening has been carried out in the same design and manner as the ancient bridge, the same arch being carried through the new portion. The same stone has been used as far as possible in the abutments, and where this was not sufficient the moor was scoured for weathered granite. So that it is now impossible to see that any new work has been carried out.”
The village Conservation Area Appraisal 2017 suggests that the present structure is 18th century in origin. It is Grade II listed. Historic England list entry 1171622, National Grid Reference:SX 64354 94028, the description says:
“Road bridge over the River Taw. Probably C18. Snecked blocks of rusticated granite ashlar. 2-span bridge, each a segmental arch rising from vertical abutments. Between the two a pointed cutwater rises into the parapet to provide small refuges each side of the road. The parapet has plain granite coping. No terminal piers.”
An unusual feature is that the leat joins the river here on the higher side. ( This plays a part in one of the village tragedies so we will come back to this exact spot in February).
A further source is https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV13046&resourceID=104
This tells us that the old stonework of the bridge is visible underneath, 4m wide, but otherwise no visible medieval remains are visible. (Alexander, j. J. /dcnq/14(1926-1927)115/early bridges). It also says receipts showing repairs were made to the bridge in 1629 are found in Tavistock Churchwardens’ accounts. (These and other sources from the website should be followed up in the future).
We can not know for certain when a bridge was first built here. Perhaps a Ford existed before that and I am aware there is some evidence for use of different routes through the village. We can however surmise that when built the bridge would only have been made as wide as it needed to be. Hence several alterations or re-builds have been required since. Tradition states that the carriage of King George III ( George William Frederick; 4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820, King from 1760) got stuck on our narrow bridge and that one parapet (side wall) had to be knocked down before he could proceed. (WI The Story of Sticklepath). This postcard and of Holne New Bridge illustrates the need for triangular pedestrian refuges and highlights the need for widening as vehicles grew larger and more numerous:
A Commermorative Plaque confirms the later widening in 1928.
There are two other associated stones of note. The bridge marked the transition from Sampford Courtenay (S.C.) to South Tawton (S.T.) Parish so it is the site of a parish boundary marker. (Photo 2019 showing relationship to commemorative plaque).
The sharp-eyed, walking into the village, will also spot a ‘C’ stone built into the side of Primula House about 75 yards further down the road. Legendary Dartmoor tells us:
“A statute laid down by Henry VIII in 1531 ensured that at least somebody was made responsible for the maintenance of bridges. This statute basically directed that if no landowner, City, Borough, Town, Parish etc. could be proven to be those charged with bridge maintenance then the duty fell upon the County or Shire.”
Such bridges became known as ‘County Bridges’ with maintenance and repair funds coming from taxes levied on local inhabitants.
“The act required that for every bridge, the road over it and for 300ft on either approach should be similarly maintained. In 1841 the Devon magistrates decided that the limits of their responsibility were to be marked by boundstones.” These ‘C Stones’ were about 3 feet high with an incised ‘C’ on one of the faces and placed one on either side of the bridge. (This lasted until 1880 when the newly formed County Councils adopted responsibility.)
WATERSMEET – Before we leave the physical appearance of the area, it is worth noting that I have seen no evidence that Sticklepath Bridge was ever part of the turnpike system (e.g. Burd, E. P., 1936, Okehampton Turnpikes). Watersmeet the house immediately alongside has a diagonal facade reminiscent of Toll houses, however, it is more likely the architect took advantage to maximise its footprint, whilst enabling best visibility for vehicles exiting from the Mill situated behind. (Now private dwellings including Albany House and Mill Cottage). Muriel Bowden suggested that Watersmeet was built in the early 1900s and remembered a sweet shop there run by Miss Harriet Worden, very popular with the children. Later a doctor held surgery in the two front rooms, in competition with Dr Sharp. On the other hand very early photographs do not necessary confirm it was originally built with the diagonal facades and raise the possibility that this was a later alteration perhaps after an accidental damage? I wonder if other early photographs exist? (Interesting also to see on the following photos how the right hand side of the road changes, the magnificent row of elm trees with their shadows in the first postcard disappear, the wall moves back to allow widening and a pavement and later the entrance to Oak Tree Park appears. Notice the chimney on Watersmeet appears and disappears too!)
PEOPLE AND EVENTS – A One Place Study aims not only to consider local and social history, but to connect people with places and events. If the stones of our bridge could speak they would have numerous stories to tell. It was of course a frequent meeting place, and not just for romantic couples about to wander along the Taw. The Western Times reports for example Friday 17 November 1865 that Earl Portsmouth’s Hounds meet at Sticklepath Bridge for “The Chase” on 20th. The report on Friday 04 July 1890 says:
“On Sunday week the members of this section of D. Company 4th V.B.D.R. fell in at Taw Bridge for a church parade and marched to the church headed by the band of the company.” “15 band, 35 rank and file.”
The bridge has been crossed by many people of note: Charles I, with his Army in 1644 pursuing the Earl of Essex in Cornwall, availed himself of the courtesy of the bridge, as perhaps his wretched Queen Henrietta had done a few weeks before, when she fled from Exeter to Launceston. Prince Rupert too rode through to quarter his troops in Okehampton, some we know were billeted at Coombehead Farm (the story is told that fearing detection they cut off the head of the cockerel to prevent it crowing and raising the alarm!).
“Many were the coaches that rattled over the bridge when Falmouth became the great Packet Station of the West, and the most famous characters of the 18th century must have been jolted from their slumbers as their postchaises or coaches took the dangerous bend.” (Henderson)
As noted in an earlier blog, in 1805 Lieutenant Lapenotiere set out to from his position off Cape Trafalgar, to deliver his vital dispatches to the Admiralty in Whitehall. His journey across the sea in the HMS Pickle, was beset with trials – rough passage such that the guns had to be thrown overboard, then be-calming. On reaching Falmouth, Lapenotiere would have taken the first possible post-chaise express carriage passing over our village bridge on his way with the news of the triumphant battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson.
Much more recently, in 1916, it was at the bridge that our village policeman arrested a man accused of molesting young girls (neither he nor his victims from Sticklepath, the constable had been given a description and correctly identified the man). The Western Times of Friday 07 May 1937 reports a lesser crime:
“STICKLEPATH MAN AND PAYMENT OF FINES. Summonses “for failing to observe a Halt” sign at Sticklepath Bridge on April 18th against Edgar Leslie Gibbs, of The Stores, Sticklepath, were dismissed at Okehampton Sessions Wednesday on payment of costs. Asked to show cause why he had not paid 12s. in respect of fines inflicted him on January 13th he said he had been out of work. At one time he drove a lorry and managed his own business. Now his only income was 2s. a week on a paper round. He was quite prepared to pay 5s. per month.” (1934 Road Traffic Acts and Regulations handbook had introduced the ‘Halt at major road ahead’ sign, precursor of the ‘Stop’ sign).
In 1950 (Western Morning News – Monday 22 May) Douglas St Leger-Gordon wrote about people gathering on the bridge to admire the increasingly rare red squirrel which was visiting it’s nut store close to the bridge daily, and had almost become the village ‘mascot’.
So far I have only had access to secondary sources, but I would be pleased to hear of any access to primary sources or other information.
Unfortunately there are several “Sticklepath” bridges, and it is not clear if all stories relate to ours. The Western Morning News – Wednesday 15 February 1928, points to just such a confusion between what is now known as Grenofen Bridge and our village bridge.
1307 – “BISHOP’S MONEY FOR REPAIRS. Thomas Bytton, cf Exeter, who died in 1307, was prelate renowned for the munificence of his charities. In his will he left a large sum of money for charitable purposes, and desired his executors to journey throughout his Diocese of Devon and Cornwall distributing it as they thought fit. The executors performed their task without sparing themselves, for they journeyed almost to Land’s End. When they returned, in 1310, they made out a long account of what they had distributed. Among other items find the gift of £6 13s. 4d. for the repair, of the Bridge at “Stykelepath” under the “view”or direction of “Robert the Monk there.” This was a large sum for a little bridge, whichever Sticklepath is meant, and we may suppose that Robert the Monk, in his hermitage by the riverside, touched the hearts of the executors by his devotion. Perhaps they had some difficulty in crossing the torrent owing to the ruinous state of the bridge, and Dan Robert, in giving them aid and comfort, was able to point a moral. The incident conjures up a vignette of wayfaring life in the Middle Ages”, and Henderson goes on:
“It is not surprising to find a monk taking charge of the building of a bridge, for in the Middle Ages bridge-building was generally under the auspices of the Church as a work of Christian charity. If the executors had styled him “Frater ” and not “Monachus” one would have regarded Robert as a member of the Order of Pontist Friars, specially formed for the building and maintenance of bridges.”
The Chantry Priest in our village at that time was one Robert de Esse so by my reckoning we have good grounds on which to claim this tale as our own.
ALL COMMENTS ARE WELCOMED.
References / Bibliography (other than those quoted in full above)
https://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/bridges_moor.htm accessed Dec 2020
Dartmoor Magazine, Editor’s blog Spring 2019 accessed via https://dartmoormagazine.co.uk/clam-bridges-of-dartmoor-and-a-new-book-or-two/ Dec 2020
The Story of Sticklepath (Dartmoor) Compiled by Sticklepath Women’s Institute 1955 reprinted with minor revisions 1993.
Conservation Area Appraisal 2017 PDF – www.dartmoor.gov.uk
Henderson, C. Western Morning News 15 Feb 1928 “Sticklepath Bridge Problem a plea for an ancient structure”.
All newspaper quotes accessed Dec 2020 through the British Newspaper Archive
Photos 2019 by Mike Shields
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