THE BROKEN BRIDGE
by ERIC HOULDER
following account, published in Local History Magazine, March 1990,
found Eric sharing his interests and skills in a way which will enthuse
others to follow his example. The Great North Road, he suggests, once
followed a route which took travellers through Pontefract. The change in
the roads course may have had something to do with the weather.
painting of the site of the broken bridge as it appeared a century ago
accompanied Eric’s article in Local History Magazine and was
reproduced by permission of J. Whitehead
Archaeology is a series of techniques which recover and make available to historians data
from non-written sources. As such it is an invaluable adjunct to local
history. The historian who ignores the mass of unwritten evidence does so at
his/her peril, and at the considerable risk of negating many of his/her
Local history is limited only by the skill and expertise of its exponents. It is
often thought of as the study of the recent past of a locality, but this
seventeenth to twentieth century fixation is quite likely to be the result of
sheer laziness, as recent sources are easier to read and understand. The ideal
combination of skills seems to be embodied in the local historian who has
studied archaeology to a reasonably high level, or an archaeologist who takes
an interest in local history. In the absence of such a person, collaboration
between two specialists can be extremely fruitful. Having worked with a gifted
local historian on a number of problems, I have come to believe strongly in
The most notable occasion was when we solved the problem of Pontefract’s name.
The etymology is pretty obvious – Ponte Fractus means broken bridge
in both Latin and Old French, but the real problem is that no river has flowed
sufficiently close to the town in recent times to make a bridge necessary! The
river Aire passes at Castleford about three miles to the northwest, and at
Knottingley, three miles east. One antiquarian suggested, not very
convincingly, that the name was originally applied to sub-Roman Castleford (LAGENTIUM)
and transferred to Pontefract when the whole population moved there in the
(conveniently) Dark Ages.
As modern travellers will know the Great North Road, (A1M) crosses the Aire at
Ferrybridge. My historian colleague, the late Harry Battye, found several
references to the old Great North Road in Pontefract. My own archaeological
aerial photography had already suggested a minor Roman road running
north/south across the eastern side of the town. Were these two routes,
separated by a millennium, the same? Further research in the archives showed
that both Camden and Leland visited the town during the sixteenth century, and
both described the site of the Broken Bridge as tradition located it.
Camden’s description is long and wordy, and so Leland’s is quoted here in
"Sum old people constantely adfirme that the Rigge of Watelyng Streate went
thorough the Park of Pontfract. As far as I can gether this is the Toune
caullid Legeolium. After it was caullid Brokenbridg. Ruines of such a bridge
yet ys seene scant half a mile Est owt of old Pontfract; but I cannot justely
say that this bridge stoode ful on Watheling Streate." Leland’s Itinery, p 40.
Convincing as this sounds, only one historian before the present century has believed it,
chiefly because the location is today so far from the present town. This
documentary evidence and further research in the field all pointed at an area
known since at least the sixteenth century as The Wash. This is where
the present east/west road and the theoretical north/south road would both
have to cross a small watercourse called Washbeck. This spot already
had historical significance for two reasons; a farmhouse near the present beck
bridge was reputed to be the place where Edward IV spent the night before the
battle of Ferrybridge (two days before Towton, 1461), and very close by, a
romanesque cross-shaft fragment was discovered in the presence of the present
writer, in 1960.
At this point chance took a hand. In 1969 a deep building-foundation was
excavated at the precise spot in question. There, in section, was the
undoubted evidence of a north/south road, banked against flooding, and linking
with an extant lane, alongside which the base of the above mentioned
cross-shaft still stands!
So far, all our evidence for this north/south road was pre-c1320. After this
period the village of Ferrybridge begins to be mentioned, which implies that
the route was diverted three miles east. What event, culminating in the reign
of Edward II, could cause a diversion in the kingdoms main highway?
This time palynology supplied the answer. Palynology is pollen-analysis, a branch
of environmental archaeology which supplies approximate dates and accurate
climatic information for periods as far back as the last ice age. It tells us
that at various times in the recent past there have been wet periods during
which rainfall has increased considerably. The historical results of these wet
phases are too complex to discuss here, but researchers seeking a reason for,
say, a run of bad harvests or a series of floods, should consult their
regional unit’s palynologist for expert help.
In the case in point, there is a clearly defined wet phase beginning about
AD1200. Obviously the effect would be cumulative. Historical records tell us
that drains were dug as the Wash area became increasingly susceptible to
flooding. When the approach to the vital bridge became impossible, travellers
diverted east to Ferrybridge. Interestingly, there was another, more recent
wet phase between 1900 and 1940. Many old residents of the Wash area,
including the writer’s parents and grandparents, describe floods during that
period. At least one old photograph shows the water backing up over half a
mile towards the town. So, from about 1320 only those sections of the old road
which were of local value remained in use.
This short article probably gives the impression that everything fell nicely into
place. In fact our research took place intermittently over a period from the
mid-1960s until 1979 when my friend and colleague died. By then, we were both
certain of our conclusions, and had presented them in public lectures and in
Harry’s recently published book, which sadly, he never saw in print.
I hope that in this short article I have shown that no single research technique
could have proved conclusively where the broken bridge actually stood. What
none of them do is to tell us why the bridge was broken in the first place. I
feel that at some time in the future, some researcher will stumble upon the
answer; I hope I am there to see it.
Shortly after this article had been first published, new road works to eliminate
flooding during wet weather at the Broken Bridge site, revealed an intact
stone arch deep beneath the road. Unfortunately it was destroyed without
record other than a description given by a witness!