Preserving your Past for the Future

 

 

Aveton Gifford Bridge

 

 

The river valley and the bridge crossing it are one of the first things a visitor sees when looking down into the valley. This ancient bridge, built in the 1400’s, is now a Grade 11 listed structure and one of the most important symbols of our heritage.

First Crossings – the Ford and Ferry.

One of the oldest routes from Modbury to Kingsbridge crossed the river between North and South Efford, or Ebb Ford. The lane down to the river from Waterhead or a track beside the bank brought travellers to the western foreshore where they could ford the river at the ebb tide, or take the ferry when the water was high. The river was wide at this point. Remnants of the old retaining wall that bordered the estuary can still be seen along part of the eastern boundary of the enclosed South Efford marshland. The bed of the ford was reputedly paved at one time; Jose Lucas who lived beside the river for over 60 years spent quite some time prodding the depths of the mud trying to find the course of it, but all evidence of it by then must have been washed away. Once over the river the route followed the green lane up the hill towards Stadbury, ruts are still clearly visible in the stone base of the lane to show where carts were hauled up and down. The remains of a ferryman’s cottage on this eastern side of the river have now been incorporated into South Efford House. How long the ferry remained in use is not known, but the marsh land in front of the new South Efford House was raised and enclosed towards the end of the C18th, likewise the marsh below the bridge a few years later, both of which would have made the route by ferry more difficult.

 

 Six arches, the 6th is on dry land on the left. pre WW2 Bridge & causeway looking north from Creacombe. circa 1920

The New Bridge

By the end of the 1300’s the road between Plymouth and Kingsbridge had become increasingly important and, from 1400 the Chichester family who owned both the manors of Avetone and half of Stadbury, may have been instumental in the building of a bridge between their properties rather than waiting for the tide to drop to use the ford.

A new bridge was built over the river some time in the early 1400’s. In 1427 the then Rector of Churchstow left a bequest of 100 shillings in his will for the building of the bridge at Aveton Gifford, and later in 1442 the Bishop granted indulgences* to all those who contributed to its building maintenance and repair. In fact because of the terrain this bridge was not a simple thing to build; it had to include two raised sections to carry the road above the marshes on either side of the main river as well. It originally consisted of 5 arches, each of a 12 ft span, at the western end crossing the marsh and leat to Marsh Mills, then the central span of six arches each 16 ft wide over the main river, and towards the eastern end a further three 16 ft arches, in all forming a causeway of 1,200 ft in length.  In 1780 it caught the eye of the Reverend John Swete on his travels through Devon enough to note in his diary “At Aveton Gifford…the river Avon or Aune was seen winding through a wide vale the pasture of which had a marshy look and across the whole width of which had been thrown a bridge not much less than a quarter mile in length.” The bridge we see today is less impressive; at either end several of the arches have now been buried in earth by the reclaiming of the marsh, the span over the river now has only five of its original six arches.

 *indulgences - awarded by the Church at that time as a remission of sin, earned either by prayer, or especially  through a donation of money.

 

'Lower Steppings' at North Efford. Date unknown Avon Bridge Garage, established by Bill Damerel. 1932

The Lady Arch

At one time one of the arches nearest to the village was known as the “Lady Arch”. It was common for bridges built in the Middle Ages to contain something of religious significance or even a chapel for the spiritual comfort of travellers. The name suggests that a statue of the Virgin Mary would have been placed here, but it was probably destroyed when Cromwell’s troops occupied the village during the civil war.

The Civil War

Aveton Gifford Bridge played a small part in a strategic plan to halt the progress of Cromwellian troops. William Lane had become rector of the parish in 1638 when the first conflicts of the civil war began in 1642. The Reverend was a staunch Royalist, although much of the surrounding area was strongly against the king because of the increasing levies he had imposed to raise himself some more money. In 1643, realising that the only bridge crossing a marshy estuary was a good spot to halt an approaching army, William Lane built a small fort on his glebe lands on Pittons Hill from which he planned to repel the advance of any troops over the bridge. Unfortunately the fort was too far away for his supporter’s musket fire to be effective as the Town Marsh (300 years before it was filled in to become the playing field) lay in between, and the plan failed dismally. Parliamentary troops crossed the bridge and occupied the village, but perhaps fortunately there are no records of how well the inhabitants were subsequently treated.

A wider bridge.

The original bridge was narrow; it only had to take pedestrians, pack horses and carts. By 1817 it had to be widened, and so a further third of its width, about 2m, was added to its arches on the upstream side by a local mason Walter Macey. (If you take a small boat up the river when the tide permits you can see where his additions join the original stonework.) However with modern traffic usage and an increasing number of large lorries, buses and machinery crossing the bridge today the old parapets are frequently knocked and damaged. Many of us can remember a day when a lorry full of calor gas cylinders broke through the bridge altogether and plunged cab first down onto the marsh below – fortunately for the driver the tide was out, and he escaped with barely a bruise.

 Bridge taken from Aveton Gifford Hill. circa1965  Flooding on the bridge. 1970

Quays.

For many centuries the Avon was used for the transportation up and down river of goods and supplies, a great deal of it from further afield. At some point three quays were built alongside the bridge for the use of barges and other river traffic. One was built beside it on the south bank of Bridge End creek to unload cargoes of coal and limestone for the lime kiln on the eastern end of the bridge.  According to the aforementioned Rev. Swete “A kiln for calcining marble rises close upon the hither extremity of the bridge, and that it might appear more ornamental from a villa a little below, hath been decorated at its angles by four turrets”; the house would have been the newly built South Efford House. A second quay was built on the downstream bank of the main river, and a third beside the bridge in the creek containing Marsh Mills leat. The barn next to it was used for storing goods brought upriver from Plymouth and unloaded at this particular quay.

The bridge today.

After the success of enclosing the marsh beside South Efford to provide extra pasture, the area of marsh which lay south of the bridge itself was also enclosed a few years later, and sheep still graze it today, often scrambling over the walls to reach the grass on the foreshore below. In 1688 a house had been built on the side of the bridge, which by 1842 had become an inn, the Maltman’s Arms, later known as the Bridge Inn (now Bridge House). One could assume it did good trade with all the passing traffic! Later it became a private house and in the 1930’s William Damerell set up the first garage and cycle shop there, and thus began the steady increase of businesses by the bridge. More barns have been built along the downstream side as well, most now converted to houses.

View of bridge upstream. 2012

There has been a huge increase in its use over the years – the A379 is the only “A” road in the immediate area and carries a large volume of traffic over the bridge at many times of the day. Ironically its original use to take travellers on foot safely across the river has now become completely the reverse and is potentially hazardous. In recent years two permissive footpaths take pedestrians through the adjoining fields on the north side of the causeway, however they still have to emerge on to the roadway to cross over the brow of the main bridge for a short distance. Discussions about a possible footbridge linking these paths to cross the main river have so far come to nothing.

The bridge looking downstream from a kayak. 2012  photo copyright Rupert Kirkwood

The bridge has changed in many ways since it first crossed the marsh, and with some of its arches now permanently obscured and a great deal of development alongside the southern edge on reclaimed land one wonders what the Reverend Swete would have made of it today. However those bridge builders knew what they were doing; the weight and quantity of traffic using the bridge today could never have been imagined all those centuries ago, and it still forms our vital link with our nearest market town almost 600 years later. In spite of all its modern additions the bridge still forms a major part of the history and heritage of our village built down in the valley around it.