1910: Abingdon in Thames Valley Villages by Charles G Harper
The Bridge, Nags Head Island, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 3HX. 01235-521125
A Ferry [probably as old as this cut itself].
1316: Matthew of Westminster
Unhappy fate contrived that Richard de Clyve, the abbot, with certain monks and lay brothers, through the kicking and plunging of their horses, at a certain river swollen with land water near their monastery, which he was disposed to cross with the said company: by some fell handling and the steersmans unwise management of the frail craft were all at one stroke drowned, oh pity! In midstream.
Before 1416 there was a bridge of timber
1416: The current bridge was built by a body known later as "The Brotherhood of Christ" (now Christ's Hospital), assisted by the wool and cloth merchants of the town.
June 17th St Albans Day, first stone laid. Leland
Every man had a penny which was the best wages, and an extraordinary price in those times. The great Stone Bridge at Abendun, made by John of S. Hellen, was a great decay to Walyngford, for that the Glosceashire men had usyd Walyngford, that now go by Abyndun. Of aunctient tyme ther was no Bridge at Abbndune, but a Ferie. There were divers Mischaunces sene at this Passage.
The Old River is crossed by another bridge, and the two are linked by a straight road, made by Geoffrey Barbour at the same time as the building of the bridges. There is a picture of Barbour in the almshouses, and this shows the bridge being built in the background; while an illuminated copy of verses tells us -
King Herry the Fyft, in his fourthe yere,
He hath i-founde for his folke a brige in Berkschire,
For cartis with cariage may go and come clere,
That many wynters afore were mareed in the myre.
Culham hithe hath caused many a curse,
I-blessed be our helpers we have a better waye,
Without any peny for cart and for horse.
[ See below for a longer version. ]
1453: 3 new arches at the south end, under a benefaction of Maud Hales. This was known as Hales Bridge, thence to the crown as Burford Bridge, and only the north end as Abingdon Bridge.
Payd to Wm Ralphe for showlinge gravell out o ye Themes, two days, xii pence.
1790: £1500 spent in widening and raising arches.
1792: Samuel Ireland -
Abingdon Bridge, Ireland, 1792
Abingdon, J M W Turner, 1806.
Abingdon Bridge, 1811
1812: W Havell, Abingdon Bridge and Church -
Abingdon Bridge and Church, W Havell, 1812
Abingdon Bridge and Church, Wilfred Ball, 1850-1900.
1890: Abingdon Bridge, Henry Taunt -
Abingdon Bridge, Henry Taunt, 1890
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive;
1891: The Stream of Pleasure, Joseph & Elizabeth Robins Pennell -
[Below Abingdon Lock, going downstream] the channel is narrow and, owing to the deep fall,
the stream is swift. It carried us quickly on until, all at once,
as we watched the growth of the spire and the lovely arrangement of the town
on the quaint old bridge, we were startled by the shouts of men on both banks.
We were sitting up to see what was the matter, when crash, we went broadside on,
against a stone wall, just here jutting out into the river and dividing it suddenly
into two rapid streams, which pass out of sight under the low arches of the bridge.
It was well our boat was a broad-beamed family tub; this was the only thing that saved us.
The men on the banks, who had been rushing about with boat-hooks and life-preservers, looked immensely surprised when, instead of diving into the water after us, all they had to do was to seize the boat and hold on hard, so as to keep it from rebounding with the blow.
It was a ticklish business, and the worst of it was we had been swept up to the wrong pier, and had to trust ourselves again to the current, and come up with another bang at the raft of the Nag's Head Hotel, where the proprietor and a boy, armed with boat-hooks, anxiously awaited our violent arrival.
As there is nothing about this strong current in the many guide books and maps and charts of the Thames, we could not have been prepared for what is unquestionably one of the few really dangerous places on the river.
Even if we wished, we could not have thought of sleeping in our boat, when the proprietor of the "Nag's Head" seemed certain he had saved us from a watery grave, and literally dragged us into his inn. We had nothing to regret. We left the boat for another very old and rambling house, another good little dinner. Instead of being alone as at Sandford, men in flannels were in the coffee room, at the bar, and in the garden. Every tme we looked out on the river from the inn windows or from the bridge, we saw a passing pleasure boat.
[ There is now no particular problem here. ]
'Indolence' by Robert Bridges is, I think, the story of a voyage from Oxford to below Abingdon Bridge. They take boat perhaps just below Folly Bridge and go down through Iffley and Sandford Locks to Nuneham through idyllic rural scenes and then down through Abingdon Lock to a change of mood with the 'straightened channel flecked with foam' as they pass Abingdon Weir below the lock, and then come to the 'ancient bridge' and finally into the sad mood of the depressed wharfs and boatyards below the bridge -
We left the city when the summer day
Had verged already on its hot decline,
And charmèd Indolence in languor lay
In her gay gardens, 'neath her towers divine:
"Farewell", we said, "dear city of youth and dream!"
And in our boat we stepped and took the stream.
All through that idle afternoon we strayed
Upon our proposed travel well begun,
As loitering by the woodland's dreamy shade,
Past shallow islets floating in the sun,
Or searching down the banks for rarer flowers
We lingered out the pleasurable hours.
Till when the loveliest came, which mowers home
Turns from their longest labour, as we steered
Along a straightened channel flecked with foam,
We lost our landscape wide and slowly neared
An ancient bridge, that like a blind wall lay
Low on its buried vaults to block the way.
Then soon the narrow tunnels broader showed,
Where, with it arches three it sucked the mass
Of water, that in swirl thereunder flowed,
Or stood piled at the piers waiting to pass;
And pulling for the middle span, we drew
The tender blades aboard and floated through.
But past the bridge what change we found below!
The stream that all day long had laughed and played
Betwixt the happy shires, ran dark and slow,
And with its easy flood no murmur made;
And weeds spread on its surface and about
The staagnant margin reared their stout heads out.
Upon the left high elms, with giant wood
Skirting the water-meadows, interwove
Their slumbrous crowns, o'ershadowing where they stood
The floor and heavy pillars of the grove;
And in the shade, through reeds and sedges dank,
A footpath led along the moated bank.
Across, all down the right, an old brick wall,
Above and o'er the channel, red did lean;
Here buttressed up, and bulging there to fall,
Tufted with grass and plants and lichen green;
And crumbling to the flood, which at its base
Slid gently, nor disturbed its mirrored face.
Sheer on the wall the houses rose, their backs
All windowless, neglected and awry,
With tottering coins and crooked chimney stacks;
And here and there an unused door, set high
Above the fragments of its mouldering stair,
With rail and broken step led out on air.
Beyond deserted wharfs and vacant sheds,
With empty boats and barges moored along,
And rafts half sunken, fringed with weedy shreds,
And sodden beams, once soaked to season strong.
No sight of man, nor sight of life, no stroke,
No voice the somnolence and silence broke.
Then I who rowed leant on my oar, whose drip
Fell without sparkle and I rowed no more;
And he that steered moved neither hand nor lip,
But turned his wandering eye from shore to shore;
And our trim boat let her swift motion die,
Between the dim reflections floating by.
Abingdon, Haslehurst, 1906
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; D230562a
1906: G.E Mitton -
The bridge, called Burford Bridge,
is a real delight. It is old and irregular, with straggling arches, some rounded,
some pointed; and all, even the highest, comparatively low down over the water,
framing cool, dark shadows within the embrace of the mighty piers.
The bridge cannot be seen in the glance of an eye. It is very long, and rests partly on an island. Standing on this, the Nag's Head Inn projects from one side of the bridge, and from it stretches out a small garden, with several orchard trees. The red tiles and creamy tint of the hotel walls show well in contrast with the grey stone of the bridge, and when the hotel is seen from the river above the bridge, with the tall spire of St. Helen's Church rising behind it, it is worth noticing.
Burford is a corruption of Borough-ford, and before the building of the bridge in the fifteenth century, the ferry at Culham was the main means of communication with the other side of the river. The range of Nuneham, below which runs the backwater called the Old River, can be seen to the south-east. If this ever was the main stream it must have been very long ago, for the memory of it is not recorded in any document now extant.
"Burford" Bridge - not to be confused with Burford Bridge, Dorking!
Vanishing Britain, P H Ditchfield -
Abingdon, another of our Berkshire towns, has a famous bridge that dates back to the fifteenth century, when it was erected by some good merchants of the town, John Brett and John Huchyns and Geoffrey Barbour, with the aid of Sir Peter Besils of Besselsleigh, who supplied the stone from his quarries. It is an extremely graceful structure, well worthy of the skill of the medieval builders. It is some hundreds of yards in length, spanning the Thames and meadows that are often flooded, the main stream being spanned by six arches. Henry V is credited with its construction, but he only graciously bestowed his royal licence. In fact these merchants built two bridges, one called Burford Bridge and the other across the ford at Culham. The name Burford has nothing to do with the beautiful old town [which we have already visited], but is a corruption of Borough-ford, the town ford at Abingdon. Two poets have sung their praises, one in atrocious Latin and the other in quaint, old-fashioned English. The first poet made a bad shot at the name of the king, calling him Henry IV instead of Henry V, though it is a matter of little importance, as neither monarch had anything to do with founding the structure. The Latin poet sings, if we may call it singing:
Henricus Quartus quarto fundaverat anno
Rex pontem Burford super undas atque Culham-ford.
The English poet fixes the date of the bridge, 4 Henry V (1416) and thus tells its story: Listen to 'The making of Abingdon Bridge'
King Henry the fyft, in his fourthe yere
He hath i-founde for his folke a brige in Berkshire
For cartis with cariage may goo and come clere,
That many wynters afore were marred in the myre.
Now is Culham hithe i-come to an ende
And al the contre the better and no man the worse,
Few folke there were coude that way mende,
But they waged a cold or payed of ther purse;
An if it were a beggar had breed in his bagge,
He schulde be right soone i-bid to goo aboute;
And if the pore penyless the hireward would have,
A hood or a girdle and let him goo aboute.
Culham hithe hath caused many a curse
I' blyssed be our helpers we have a better waye,
Without any peny for cart and horse.
Another blyssed besiness is brigges to make
That there the pepul may not passe after great schowres,
Dole it is to draw a dead body out of a lake
That was fulled in a fount stoon and felow of owres.
The poet was grateful for the mercies conveyed to him by the bridge. "Fulled in a fount stoon," means "baptized in a stone font." ie "A Christian Soul". He reveals the misery and danger of passing through a ford "after great showers," and the sad deaths which befell adventurous passengers when the river was swollen by rains and the ford well-nigh impassable. No wonder the builders of bridges earned the gratitude of their fellows. Moreover, this Abingdon Bridge was free to all persons, rich and poor alike, and no toll or pontage was demanded from those who would cross it.
1927: Abingdon Bridge rebuilt
1929: A Thames Survey -
Abingdon Bridge consists of two portions, separated by an Island, the southern known as Burford Bridge
and the northern portion as Abingdon Bridge. The whole structure was originally built in stone in 1416
(to replace an older one of timber) by a body known later as "The Brotherhood of Christ" (now Christ's Hospital),
assisted by the wool and cloth merchants of the town.
Much of the original structure remains, although the northern portion, consisting of seven small Gothic arches, has been altered and widened in past times, particularly 1790. The southern portion (Oxfordshire side) consisted of five small Gothic arches and one larger elliptical one for navigation: this part has been reconstructed, and is faced with the old stones in an admirable manner.
The group of eighteenth century houses that stand on the island contribute largely to the charm of the bridge. The headway above normal water-level was 11 feet previous to the rebuilding of the southern portion; the new bridge has headway of 14 feet.
Abingdon Bridge, 1999
2005: Abingdon Bridge, Doug Myers -
1914: Hilaire Belloc -
... at the close of the
middle ages ... how would the great houses have appeared?
Abingdon, would have been what Noyon is on
the Oise, or any of our river cathedrals in Western Europe an apse pointing
upstream, though rounded and lacking the flying buttresses of the Gothic, for
it was thick, broad, and Norman. ...
The west front would have burst upon the traveller, quite new, exceedingly rich and proud, a strict example, one may believe of the perpendicular, and of what was for the first time, and for a moment only, a true English Gothic. It would have stood out before him, catching the sun of the afternoon in its maze of glass. It would have seemed a thing to endure;
within a lifetime it was to be utterly destroyed.
Abingdon Abbey Gateway, one of the few surviving fragments.
1890: Photo, Abingdon, Francis Frith
1890, Abingdon, St Helens Church, Francis Frith -
Abingdon is notable for offering
splendid free moorings on both sides above the bridge.
Remember - we are now encouraged to double park on moorings, by permission, alongside similar boats only - even when there is still bank space left.
On theRIGHT bank, there are the most secluded mooring, (not very!)
while on LEFT bank are moorings in a public park -
Abingdon Mooring above the bridge, 1999
1890: Abingdon, looking towards Abbey Lock, Francis Frith -