The Original River Crossing: The Significance of River Fords

River fords provide a place for people and animals to cross streams, rivers and other waterways.

A type of low water crossing, some river fords occur as natural parts of the landscape, while others are purposefully constructed to facilitate better transportation.

Unlike bridges that are raised above the water level, fords still have water running over them, however the water level is shallow enough to be waded through or crossed with a vehicle with just the wheels becoming submerged.

Ford on the river stour - eye bridge, Pamphill, Dorset
The ford crossing the River Stour, Wimborne. An ancient crossing point that is also known as Roman Crossing because a Roman road forded the stream here to reach Lake Fort that was situated nearby.

The fact that water is also flowing over fords can make them somewhat less reliable than bridges, and potentially impassable in periods of high water.Fords have been used to cross rivers and streams throughout history and are still constructed and used in the modern era.

River Fords


Just the UK alone boasts over two thousand river fords. While the unpredictability of fords during periods of heavy rain and flooding often mean they are reserved for minor roads in the UK, this is not the case in every country.

Winterborne Monkton packhorse bridge Dorset
The ford and packhorse bridge, Winterborne Monkton, Dorset

In New Zealand, up until 2010, fords were in use along State Highway 1, a major transportation artery in the nation. While some fords are naturally occuring and others are entirely manmade, there are also some instances where a combination of natural construction and human intervention have occured.

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This is often the case in areas where water is shallow enough to form a crossing but the riverbed is not suitable to facilitate the crossing of heavy vehicles.

In these cases, concrete is sometimes added to the natural ford. create a more stable platform for passing vehicles. In some instances, such as at Brockenhurst in Hampshire, and Swinbrook in Oxfordshire, fords are also known as ‘watersplash’.

Rampisham ford, Dorset.
The ford at Rampisham has been culverted which creates flooding every winter as the water can not flow fast enough through the pipes.

As fords formed natural passageways into regions that were otherwise divided by waterways, fortresses and towns often developed around fords. This was particularly the case with fords that crossed rivers that were otherwise deep, large and fast flowing.

Controlling a ford, and limiting those that could cross, provided a distinct strategic advantage for historic populations that were protecting and defending their lands. 

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The bottleneck effect for travel that fords provided also created a potential advantage when it came to trade and migration. This congregation of traders and migrants at ford crossings aided in the development of settlements at the site of fords. 

River Fords Through History 

Fords have been constructed and capitalised on to cross waterways since ancient times, and river crossings from centuries ago still exist across the UK to this day.

A good example of this is Rufford Ford in Nottinghamshire. Rufford Ford is thought to be more than a thousand years old, it has recently closed after it became a local attraction after going viral in a TikTok video. After this, there  were issues with dangerous driving that led to the closure. 

The Rufford Mill Ford in Nottinghamshire, UK has become a hotspot for locals to test the water-fording abilities of their vehicles, attracting onlookers and millions of viewers online in recent months. Credit: Tom Sunderland – YouTube

A ford crosing the River Stour near Clifford Chambers Bridge is thought to date back to the early medieval period, while Marlin Ford providing access across the Clyde River may have been in use as early as the 1700s.

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It is also believed that remnants of a ford from Roman times exists at the foot of a stream valley near Iden Green in the county of Kent. As Romans implemented sophisticated road construction techniques, many Roman fords, including the remnants of the ford in Kent, show evidence of paving to facilitate easier crossing. 

Fords Vs Tidal Roads 

A variation of a ford is a tidal road, unlike standard river fords, these crossings are impacted by tidal cycles and often become completely impassable at high tide. A noted example of a tidal road in the UK is the road to Lindisfarne in Northumberland.

This road is only accessible for use during low tide, due to the cyclical nature of these crossings, tidal roads are often only safe to use at certain times each day.

Read More: How Were Roman Roads Built?

As these roads can flood rapidly with rising tides, tidal roads can be particularly dangerous. The 600 year old tidal right of way known as Britain’s Broomway in Essex, has gained notoriety as one of the most perilous roads in Britain. It is believed the Broomway has claimed the lives of more than one hundred people. 

While many tidal roads are found in seaside locations, they can  also be a means of crossing  points along tidal rivers, that are not necessarily located in close proximity to the coast.

Fords to Fight Over 

Interestingly, fords have been the site of a number of significant battles fought throughout British history. In 1066, in the throes of Harald Hadrada of Norway’s invasion of England, the Battle of Fulford was fought across the Ouse River.

This historic battle resulted in Harald’s victory. The Viking leader gained the territory of Fulford, and this helped pave the way for York to later fall under Norwegian control. 

Moreton Ford with Sherman tanks
WW2 Sherman tanks crossing an ancient ford in Moreton village, Dorset. Image Credit: MARK BARNES

The Battle of Newburn Ford during the Second Bishops’ War in 1640 also took place at a ford site. At a ford just outside Newcastle over the River Tyne, a Scottish Covenanter force composed of 20,000 men met 5,000 English troops. The Covenanters were part of a religious and political group formed in 17th century Scotland.

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The group was supported by the Presbyterian Church and were active in a religious, political and armed capacity throughout the 1600s. Fought over the ford, the Battle of Newburn Ford lasted from around one in the afternoon to the early evening, and perhaps unsurprisingly due to the large discrepancy in troop numbers, the Scottish Covenanters claimed victory. 

Packhorse bridge and ford at Fifehead Neville
Packhorse bridge and ford at Fifehead Neville.

As well as conflicts in the UK, multiple battles occurred across river fords all over the world. This included conflicts in the Republic of Ireland, India, South Africa, Korea, and Canada, as well as conflicts during the American Civil War and the American Revolutionary War, including the famous Battle of Brandywine. 

A Crossing for Oxen and Deer 

Fords were such an important part of the historic landscape that the names of many ancient fords still persist in place names used today. One significant example of this is Oxford.

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Occupied since the Saxon period and a place of strategic significance at the junction of two major rivers, the name Oxford is a corruption of the term oxen ford, a name quite literally referring to a place where oxen crossed the river via way of a ford.

ford at Tarrant Keyneston
We have over 2000 fords in the UK and you will know many place names with ‘ford’ in them. Think about places near you with such places names

 Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire is another example of a ford giving rise to a place name still in use today. Much like Oxford, Hertford likely originally referred to a ford where deer crossed, with the word hart once a more widely used term for a male red deer. 

Roman Roads and New Names 

Ammanford in Wales was named for the ford over the Amman River. The town was not known by this name until 1880, known prior to this time as Cross Inn. However, the town was renamed to Ammanford to avoid confusion as it expanded and other settlements in Carmarthenshire were also named Cross Inn.

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The town of Stratford in the region of Greater London references an ancient ford that formed part of a river crossing of an old Roman Road.

The town was first referenced in 1067 by the name Strætforda, a moniker that translates to mean ford on a Roman road. The exact location of the original ford isn’t conclusively known, however the area of Old Ford near Stratford may be named after the same original ford. 

River Fords Today 

While river fords are still widely used today, it is more common for bridges to be constructed at river crossings.

This is particularly the case for larger roadways and key transportation routes. Fords are distinctly disadvantaged by the fact that poor weather conditions can make them susceptible to high water levels and flooding that makes fords impassable.

the ford in front of a ruined priest's cottage
The ford in front of a ruined priest’s cottage (centre) and restored chapel (centre left) at Lyscombe, near Cheselbourne. Credit: Nigel Mykura

There have been a number of warnings issued in recent years when it comes to the safety of using fords as vehicle crossings.

Instances of cars being swept away have become a dangerous occurrence at fords, particularly in times of heavy rain when water levels may be higher. Fords also pose the risk of car engines flooding and stalling while crossing river fords.


Read More: Packhorse Bridges: What are They?

Over the course of just five years, 100 rescues were performed at the Rufford Ford after cars flooded and stopped working when attempting to cross.

Furthermore, the AA has reported that river fords are a major source of flood related breakdowns in the UK. However, fords have become a popular feature for offroading enthusiasts and prominent part of rally tracks throughout Britain. 

The Importance of River Fords 

Ford taking Mill Lane across Mill Lawn Brook , Burley, New Forest. The 3ft sign looks a bit optimistic. Credit: Peter Facey

Fords have been used as practical river crossings throughout history and into the modern era. While they can be somewhat unreliable, particularly during periods of high rainfall, fords are a largely natural and inexpensive way to create a passage across a waterway.

Controlling fords provided a distinct advantage for communities, with controlling and limiting movement across major waterways a tactical strategy for the defence and protection of an area.


Fords were such a prominent part of the ancient landscape that many towns, villages, cities, and regions still directly refer to ford crossings in their names, notably the large settlements of Oxford and Hertford. 

Fords have been the site of major historic battles both in the UK and abroad and remnants of ford crossings from thousands of years ago can still be found in the UK today. 

While in modern day UK, fords are often only used on more minor roads, they have gained an important place in Britain’s transport history. Lead Image of Jeeps in the ford. Credit: MARK BARNES