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Packhorse Bridges: What are They?

Many medieval packhorse bridges still remain. Packhorse routes were the arteries of trade across Britain and much of the rest of Europe.

Horses fully loaded with heavy packs would transport a huge range of goods along single-file tracks, bypassing bigger lanes and roads in order to save time and money.

It was a lonely way of life. The packs would disappear deep into the countryside and would only be seen again when they stopped for supplies or when they arrived at their final destination.

Where these vital trade routes met a river or stream, simple bridges were built with just enough room to accommodate a single horse and their load. Numerous packhorse bridges survive to this day, living testaments to an age before the dawn of canals and paved roads.

Rampisham packhorse bridge, still doing it’s job as it is on a Bridle Way.

Packhorses and Packhorsemen

For hundreds of years, until the construction of turnpike roads and then canals, horses were used to transport goods across the length and breadth of Britain, just as they were in the rest of Europe.

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The horses were short, stocky and strong: Scottish Galloway horses and German ‘Jaeger’ horses were particularly common. Wooden pack frames were strapped onto their backs and side bags – or panniers – were attached.

A wide range of goods were transported this way, ranging from corn and wool to coal, lead, iron ore, limestone and salt.

Packhorse bridge near the village of Sturminster Marshall. Nothing elaborate - it worked, it done its job.
A packhorse bridge near the village of Sturminster Marshall. Nothing elaborate – it worked, it done its job.

This system of transportation was especially effective for transporting fruits and vegetables into cities from the countryside or fish from coastal villages. Since packhorses could follow smaller, more direct paths, there was less risk of them getting stuck in the poorly-maintained rutted roads used by wagons. It was cheaper, too, since packhorses could bypass the tollgates found along bigger roads.

20 Miles Per Day

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A single packhorse could carry as much as 180kg and horses often travelled in groups, known as packhorse trains which sometimes numbered as many as 30 animals. However, progress was often slow. Packhorse trains would generally cover a maximum of 20 miles a day, or even less if the terrain was particularly hilly.

Note that there is no parapet on the bridge and the reason being was to allow the horses with their packs to move freely over the bridge without the packs hitting the side of the bridge. My motorcycle has ‘side packs’, we know them as panniers – the term is actually Old French – panier, which means ‘basket’.

Since horses could only travel at certain times of the year, the job of a packhorse man was seasonal. In many cases, farmers supplanted their main income by guiding packhorses along fixed routes. In some cases, a packhorse man guided a single horse.

But in the case of packhorse trains, then one would lead the first horse and another packhorse man would walk behind the last horse, using both a stick and voice commands to keep them on course.

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The work was tough and not very well paid. It was almost entirely done by men. However, there are stories of packhorse women, usually dressing as men for protection against criminals.

Packhorse Trails

Packhorse trails were found all over Britain and Europe. They connected towns and cities with rural communities, fishing villages, mine and farms. For centuries, they were major trade arteries, with whole infrastructure networks built to service them.

packhorse bridge
Built just wide enough for single file

Packhorse trails were usually narrow – only the width of one horse with passing places at regular intervals. However, sometimes the trails followed older, wider paths or they followed drovers’ roads, designed to be wide enough to accommodate whole herds of flocks of livestock.

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Where packhorse trails needed to cross streams or small rivers, special bridges were built. The peak era for building packhorse bridges was from around the early 1600s to the early 1800s, though some bridges are older. Many of them still survive to this day.

When is a Bridge a Packhorse Bridge?

packhorse bridge
The original level of the bridge – the parapet is of a much later date.

Despite much interest in them by both professional and amateur historians, a single, clear, definition of a packhorse bridge has yet to be agreed upon.

Research into historical terms by the University of York has found that there is “no definition available”, noting some of what are now known as packhorse bridges were previously classed as ‘horse bridges’, ‘foot bridges’ or even ‘causeways’.

Narrow Packhorse Bridges

However, true packhorse bridges should generally have certain characteristics. Firstly, they must be narrow: that is, with just room enough for one horse and certainly not wide enough to accommodate a cart.

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A general rule-of-thumb among enthusiasts is that genuine packhorse bridges were built no more than six feet wide. At the same time, they should have been built before 1800, which is generally considered to be the end of the peak era of packhorses.

And finally, they should be located on recognized packhorse routes, with clear evidence that they were used as crossings by packhorses.

packhorse bridge
The old path down to the bridge which is the same path packhorse trains would have used. Wild garlic covers this track

There are some exceptions to these general rules – for instance, where bridges were certainly part of known packhorse trails but which were just about wide enough for carts to cross, like the Moulton Packhorse Bridge in Suffolk.

Additionally, some small bridges were built to provide access to cottages from packhorse routes and therefore are not proper packhorse bridges.

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In many cases, surviving historical records or archives can be used to conclusively determine if a bridge was built for packhorses or not. But there are some other ways of determining a bridge’s purpose.

Old packhorse routes can often be identified by the clues they have left behind. Bridges close to pubs with names like the Pack Horse Inn or The Woolpack are very likely to be packhorse bridges, for example.

Characteristics of Packhorse Bridges

Packhorse bridges were built in a variety of styles and in a range of sizes. But one thing that they all have in common is that they were built as cheaply as possible. They were never built as status symbols or monuments of civic pride.

In many cases, their construction was funded through contributions from local merchants or even packhorsemen themselves. For example, the packhorse bridge in Stow, Scotland, was constructed thanks to public subscriptions between 1654 and 1655, with the local church contributing stone from its walls.

Carrbridge Packhorse Bridge, Scotland

Similarly, the parishioners of Duthil Church in the Scottish Highlands all paid for the construction of a small packhorse bridge to enable funeral processions to cross the river (for this reason, the bridge is still to this day known as the ‘Coffin Bridge’).

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For this reason, packhorse bridges are not ornate but rather simple in design and function. Most were built from locally-sourced stone. So, while some bridges were made of flint, others, including several notable examples in the Peak District, were constructed from limestone slabs.

Medieval Bridges

The construction technique used was also relatively simple. In most cases, a timber framework was built to outline the shape of the bridge. Once all the bricks were in place, with stone rubble added between the stones to add strength, the wooden supports – also known as ‘formers’ – were removed.

Up until the around end of the 15th century, the arches of packhorse bridges were usually pointed. However, towards the latter part of the Medieval period, arches became more rounded.

packhorse bridge
Medieval cutwaters on this packhorse bridge

The number of arches varies significantly. Many packhorse bridges are single arch structures spanning small streams. However, single arched bridges can have steep inclines, far from ideal for horses carrying heavy loads.

Adding more arches reduces the rate of incline, making it easier for horses as well as for pedestrians. Additionally, in many cases, bridges were made far wider than the small streams or rivers they crossed in order to take into account seasonal or even freak flooding. The more arches a bridge had, the greater the chance packhorse trains would be able to cross year-round.

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Fourteen Arches

The longest surviving packhorse bridge in England is Essex Bridge, which was built across the River Trent in Staffordshire in the late 16th century. Originally, it had 40 arches, allowing the bridge to span the wide river with a gentle incline for laden horses. However, only 14 of the original arches survive to this day.

Essex Bridge, a packhorse bridge across the River Trent

Some packhorse bridges were built without parapets – low walls along their edges – at all. Most were, however, though they were always as low as possible. This way, the panniers carried by the horses could pass over unobstructed.

In the centuries following the end of the packhorse system of transportation, parapets were often built up more for the safety of pedestrians. 

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Longer packhorse bridges in particular are likely to have one or more small triangular cut-outs, usually in the middle of the bridge. The bridges were invariably single track, and pedestrians would be warned of an approaching packhorse train by bells attached to the lead horse.

If they failed to cross in time, they could simply duck into one of the cut-outs and let the horses and their cargo cross the bridge safely.

Conservation and Modern Use

From the 18th century onwards, with the introduction of turnpike roads and canals into the British transport system, the packhorse system became largely obsolete. Many packhorse routes were quickly neglected and then forgotten about.

Others carried on as routes for pedestrians or drovers. The same was true with packhorse bridges. Those that continued to be used were sometimes modified, with parapets built up to keep pedestrians safer, and even widened to accommodate flocks and herds of livestock as well as carts and carriages.

The beautifully preserved turnpike cottage at Athelhampton has a Victorian post box set into its brickwork

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In the case of Sidford Bridge in Devon, the 12th century, former single-track bridge was widened to the extent that it now carries cars over the River Sid as part of the main A3052 road.

In more recent times, local conservation groups as well as larger bodies including English Heritage have stepped in to protect and maintain old packhorse bridges.

Many are now on public footpaths, allowing walkers to follow in the footsteps of packhorse trains from centuries ago. Others are bridleways and some, like Charwelton Bridge in Nottinghamshire, carry the pavement alongside modern roads.

Several notable bridges enjoy legal protection – the 14-arch Essex Bridge, for example, is a Grade I listed structure as well as a Schedule Monument, which protects it from any modifications. Similarly, in Scotland, several packhorse bridges enjoy Grade B listed protection, recognizing their historic significance.