Ancient Ways

The History of Britain’s Clapper Bridges

Clapper bridges are a distinctive and historically significant type of bridge found primarily in the rural landscapes of Britain. These ancient stone structures, characterised by their simple yet robust design, span streams, rivers, and small brooks, particularly in the upland areas of the British Isles.

They consist of large flat slabs of stone, known as “clappers,” supported by stone piers or stacked stones. The history of clapper bridges stretches back to medieval times and possibly earlier, reflecting the ingenuity of pre-industrial engineering and the adaptation to local environments using available materials.


Origins and Construction

The exact origins of clapper bridges are somewhat mysterious, but they are believed to date back to the Neolithic period, although most were erected in medieval times, and some in later centuries.

According to Dartmoor National Park, the term ‘clapper’ ultimately originates from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cleaca’, which means ‘bridging the stepping stones’. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the intermediate Medieval Latin form ‘clapus, claperius’, which is of Gaulish origin and initially meant ‘a pile of stones’.

This small moss covered stone bridge spans a tributary of the East Dart River just south of Babeny, Devon.

Clapper bridges are most commonly associated with the medieval period when they were constructed as a practical solution for farmers and travelers needing to cross waterways without the means or necessity to build more elaborate structures.

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These bridges were built using large stone slabs, which were either found locally or transported from nearby quarries. The slabs were laid across stacks of stones or directly on the natural bedrock to form a walkway.

Clapper bridge across the Afon Arthog near Cadair Idris

The simplicity of their design means that no mortar was needed, allowing for quick construction and easy maintenance. This technique also demonstrated an excellent understanding of the landscape and hydrology, as the placement of clapper bridges often utilised natural rock formations to provide additional support and stability.

Uses of Clapper Bridges

Clapper bridges were primarily utilitarian in their function, providing essential transport links for local communities. They facilitated the movement of livestock and goods across waterways, which was particularly important in remote rural areas where trade and communication depended heavily on such simple infrastructures.

Clapper Bridges
Clapper bridge over Malham Beck

The design of clapper bridges also meant that they were low enough not to be swept away by floods, yet sturdy enough to withstand the harsh weather conditions typical of the British uplands.

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They are often situated in picturesque locations, contributing to the aesthetic and cultural landscape of the British countryside. As such, they have become icons of local heritage and are celebrated in folklore, literature, and tourism.

Locations and Notable Clapper Bridges

Clapper bridges are found throughout the United Kingdom, but they are particularly prevalent in moorland areas of Devon and Cornwall, as well as across Dartmoor and Exmoor. These locations, with their rugged terrain and numerous streams, made the simple and sturdy design of clapper bridges especially suitable.

Tarr Steps

Tarr Clapper Bridges
Tarr Steps a lovely example of a clapper bridge across the River Barle, Exmoor

The Tarr Steps Bridge is an ancient clapper bridge, with estimates of its construction ranging from around 1000 B.C. to 1400 A.D. This type of bridge is characterised by its construction method, consisting of large unmortared stone slabs laid atop one another.

Spanning 50 meters, the bridge features 17 spans with the top slabs positioned approximately 99 cm above the normal water level, each weighing between 1 and 2 tons. The largest of these slabs measures over 2.4 meters in length and about 1.5 meters in width.

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It has been restored several times in recent years due to flood damage. Over time, the extent of the damage is a reliable indicator of each flood’s severity. Some of the top slabs have been washed away under extreme flood conditions, and they have now all been numbered to aid in their replacement.

The Exmoor National Park web site says:

The stones forming the spans weigh between one and two tons each and have on occasions been washed up to 50 yards (46 m) downstream. A distinctive feature of Tarr Steps is the slabs that are raked against the ends of each pier to break the force of the river and divert floating debris. Despite this, much of the damage has been due to debris such as branches floating down with the flood and battering the bridge. Debris used to be removed once a year by farmers from the Dulverton and Hawkridge sides of the river but since the flood of 1952 it has been trapped by cables strung across the river upstream of the bridge.

Postbridge Clapper Bridge

Clapper Bridges
The clapper bridge in Postbridge, a hamlet in the heart of Dartmoor. © DavePark

Postbridge is well known for its ancient clapper bridge spanning the river. The bridge is thought to have been constructed in the 13th century to facilitate pack horses carrying tin to the stannary town of Tavistock. This clapper bridge, classified as a Grade II*-listed structure, remains intact and is situated alongside another bridge, built in the 1780s, which is also a Grade II-listed structure.

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The earliest known historical reference to the bridge dates back to 1655, when William French the elder, a yeoman from Widecombe, leased the Outer Newtake to his sons.

The lease described the newtake as ‘situated, lying and being between Postbridge and a newtake of one Richard Leeres within the Forest of Dartmoor in the parish of Widecombe’. In 1675, John Ogilby included the bridge on a map in his book ‘Itinerarium Angliae’ and referred to it as ‘a Stone bridge with 3 Arches called Post Bridge’.

The likely date of construction for the bridge is thought to be between AD 1300 and 1655. By the mid-13th century, a number of Postbridge Farms had been established, and sophisticated arched bridges, such as New Bridge and Holne Bridge, had been constructed nearby by the early 15th century or so.

The origin of the bridge’s granite slabs is discussed; it is believed that the granite came from Bellever Tor, 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres) to the south, or possibly Lower White Tor.

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Circular drilled holes visible on the upper surface of the western slab and the downstream central slab are remnants of a 19th-century cattle barrier.

Wedge cuts visible on some of the slabs indicate how the stones were originally split, and other modifications to deflect the force of the water are detailed. Maximum measurements of the slabs are provided, along with a range of images, including historical maps and plans, and photographs.

Ockery Clapper Bridge – Devon

Clapper Bridges
Ockery clapper bridge after snow has thawed.

This modest clapper bridge was once the primary pack-horse bridge leading into Princetown, Devon. Most early topographical writers overlook this clapper, as the larger and more striking ones at Two Bridges and Postbridge tend to capture their attention.

However, this old clapper bridge, distinguished by its two openings, has a unique claim to fame. According to local lore, a woman once encountered and caught a pixie here on her way home—a rare and enchanting tale that few bridges can claim!

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You will not be able to gain access to the bridge as it is on private property but it can be clearly seen from the nearby road bridge. Parking is available on the Princetown side of the bridge.

Weavers’ Bridge, Lancashire

The Clapper Bridge at Wycoller, Lancashire.

The Clapper Bridge, also known variously as the Druids’ Bridge, Weavers’ Bridge, or Hall Bridge, is situated just a short distance along the beck.

This bridge, while primitive in design, features massive proportions with three flat gritstone slabs supported by two stone piers—one a round-shaped boulder and the other a thinner, pillar-shaped stone that appears fragile but is actually very strong.

Originally, the bridge was constructed with just two slabs resting on a single central pier. However, it has undergone several reconstructions due to damage caused by floods over the years, and its slabs show significant wear from centuries of use.

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Legend has it that this bridge once led to a grove where druids conducted their arcane rituals, though today, there is no trace of such a mystical grove or amphitheatre. Similarly, the handloom weavers of Wycoller, once a common sight, have long since ceased their activities.

The bridge is generally believed to date from the 16th to 17th century, although some historians speculate that its origins may predate the Norman Conquest. The groove was chiselled flat by a farmer after his daughter had a fatal accident on the bridge about 1912.

Preservation of Clapper Bridges

Many clapper bridges are now considered historical monuments and are protected under British law. Conservation efforts are crucial to preserve these ancient structures, not only to maintain their structural integrity but also to keep alive the history and heritage they represent.

Old Clapper Bridge above Arthog The stream soon drops about 200 metres down to Arthog over a series of waterfalls in a distance of less than 1 km.

Regular maintenance, careful management of surrounding landscapes, and respectful tourism are all part of the conservation strategies employed to protect these bridges.

Organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust, along with local authorities, play significant roles in these efforts. They ensure that clapper bridges are preserved not only as functional crossings but also as important educational and cultural resources.