Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Newbridge

Newbridge
Newbridge

Newbridge takes its name from what Basil Fawlty would have called “the bleeding obvious”. It is the new bridge, so called because it is “new” compared to Radcot Bridge which was completed about 25 years earlier. The bridge has six arches over the river, and six more each with a medieval pointed profile. The construction was instigated by the personal command of King John (who was yet another of those “bad kings”) who wanted to speed up the transportation of wool from the Cotswolds. He probably was more interested in speeding up his ability to levy higher taxes on the wool merchants than for their profitability, but he did get the bridges built.

The weather is still miserable. It has rained ever since I left the Trout some two hours ago and it does not look like stopping. These are not the best conditions for viewing anything or taking photographs which is a great shame. Newbridge takes a marvellous photograph under the right conditions, but for now I have to imagine the honey-coloured stones glowing in the sun, with the pointed arches forming perfect reflections in the smooth waters.

Such thoughts lead to an admiration of the skills of those fine yeomen of Olde England who erected this magnificent structure for our enjoyment. What talents we had in England then; the best in the world.

Except they weren’t: they were French.

The monks of Deerhurst Priory, near Gloucester were thought to have been the builders of the bridge. The local manor of La Nore (Northmoor) at the time belonged to the Priory so this connection is reasonably straightforward. Then we get a little more complicated. Edward the Confessor had made Deerhurst into an outpost of the Benedictine Priory of St Denis near Paris. It was from St Denis that the Pontife Brothers, notable ecclesiastical architects of their day, travelled to England in the first half of the 13th Century and influenced the construction of many buildings. The monks of Deerhurst became much sought after for their masonry skills and it is reasonable to assume that the Pontife Brothers had an influence over them.

Deerhurst Priory continued to maintain the bridge for just over 200 years, collecting tolls and carrying out repairs as necessary. This came to an end in 1460 when during the Hundred Years War the manor of La Nore was seized from the French and once again became the property of the Crown.

Similar to Radcot, the Cavaliers and Roundheads had a bit of a set-too here as well. Newbridge was situated right on the border between the two warring factions. I was conveniently halfway between Abingdon and Witney, Oxford and Faringdon, where the rivers Thames and Windrush conjoined, and was the “Checkpoint Charlie” of the day with the river forming a natural barrier. In 1644 the Roundhead commander, William Waller attempted to cross the river in order to lay siege to Oxford and capture King Charles but was thwarted by the Royalist forces. The King was safe for a while, but this was only a delay, Oxford eventually fell and the Roundheads claimed the country.

While we can easily accept that Newbridge was built after Radcot Bridge, the arguments rage about which is the oldest stone bridge across the Thames. For a start, Radcot Bridge, or at least the old part of it, does not actually cross the Thames. Since the rerouting of the river in 1787 the main stream passes under the extension to the bridge.

There is also the small matter that Radcot Bridge was not a bridge during the War of the Roses because Henry Bolingbroke took the middle piece away, so the present bridge has only been in place since its first restoration.

It is still raining. The pathway all too conveniently leaves the riverbank and enters the beer garden of The Maybush. It is so easy to follow the well-trodden route towards the entrance door and when I reach it some invisible and irresistible force-field drags me into the bar and orders a pint of Guinness.

The Maybush
The Maybush

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