Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Fossilized Journeys

Last weekend I was rambling far from my place of residence towards Oxford when I came across Thornborough Bridge. It's a medieval bridge surrounded by ancient burial mounds and trackways that went out of use in the 1970s and now makes a beautiful resting place for the car weary traveller. To find out more about this ancient site, Click Here

Its a great stop off point for anyone going to or coming from Oxford from the east, for there is both the history of the medieval bridge and much earlier Roman and pre -Roman archeology, and also its natural history. It's a real beauty spot and surprisingly relaxing when you take into account the roaring traffic on the nearby A421. But what caught my eye as I walked the length of the old bridge was the deep scoring that covers the two inside walls of the bridge and it seems to me that it can only have been made by many generations of carts that crossed the bridge long, long ago. Certainly the marks were made after the bridge was built, because many of them cross multiple stones and some must be reasonably old because they are now encrusted with lichens.

Wavy scoring across the stones

Some very deep grooves

Lichen covering the scoring, suggesting its been there some time

Some of the marks even follow a wavy pattern, up and down and suggest that the cart wheel was perhaps damaged and a bit wonky! That's' what really caught my imagination about these marks; they really are fossilised journeys. I'm used to looking for graffiti on old structures; words and pictures scratched on stone long, long ago, and sometimes we can tell a lot about the ideas and beliefs of the people who deliberately left these marks. But what of this accidental scoring, who knows? Perhaps some were caused by an unruly cart horse reacting to an overzealous whip. Maybe some represent a carters attempts to avoid a drunk stumbling across the bridge who didn't have the sense to stop in one of the 3 V shaped stopping places built into the medieval bridge for that purpose. Or perhaps some were simply caused by weary travellers whose overloaded carts were too big for the bridge or who were in a hurry to get home for their tea; we simply can't know for sure. It's fair to say that many of these marks were made by local travellers. Perhaps they were peddlers, merchants and farmers taking goods to and from the local market, but other than that we can only wonder about these journeys from long, long ago. We can only wonder about these ramblers from long, long ago; these travelers and their travels set in stone!

+Many Coats+


  1. A lyrical and thoughtful piece Mr Many Coats!

    I would heartily recommend that you go to your book dealer and request a copy of 'The Scouring of Provincial English Medieval Bridges' (1894) by Peregrine Perkinson Cuthbert Pride. A most rewarding read Sir!

  2. Thank you my esteemed college in antiquarian jaunts. I have perused this very fine volume and was particularly drawn to the chapter on ruttling and its relationship to the axle width of both two and four wheeled carts.

  3. I have read this tome and would like to recommend extracts from the Pride's planned, but unfinished companion volume, 'Evidence of Accidents in English Cathedrals', in which he sought to find the scaring associated with the many accidents that beset medieval builders. To put it into Pride's own words, "I sought to find fixed within the ancient lime mortar and stone, the last desperate scrabbling of many a mason immediately prior to plummeting to their doom". Alas for Pride the only way he could achieve his quest was to scale the outside of the cathedrals with nothing but a hemp rope and a small child, which even in the days when health and safety had yet to become an issue was described by one of his peers in the Gloucestershire Fellowship of Learned Antiquarians as "Utter lunacy". So much so that Pride was forced to climb at night and it was whilst scaling Wells Cathedral spire that he plummeted to his own doom. Indeed, so dark was it the night he fell, that the authorities were only alerted to the terrible accident by Pride's final words, "bugger" which rang out around the close waking the Dean and causing him an awful fright. Pride's death was much lamented especially since his search for evidence of medieval accidents was a futile one. Although ironically it is said that with a powerful telescope it is still possible to see Pride's own last desperate scrabbling and even one of his finger nails protruding from the lime mortar two thirds of the way up Wells cathedral spire. A fitting end for a fine antiquarian and one which I think serves to remind us all of two important points: Firstly, that Pride truly does come before a fall and secondly,that ultimately we are all part of history.

    J R Unstead (Deceased)