Friday, 29 May 2015

The Marooned Roman Bridge

Piercebridge Co Durham Roman Bridge remains

In a field just outside the small village of Piercebridge in Co Durham, lie the stranded remains of a Roman bridge, marooned after the River Tees moved Northwards.

Piercebridge Roman Bridge

I was really exicited when I first heard of this site! It being not too far away from where I live, I rushed over to see it. The idea of being able to walk around and examine the remains of a Roman bridge, and the weirdness of it now being isolated in a field was also too much to resist. The reality did not disappoint and I was awestruck both by the uniqueness of the site, and also the other interesting things in Piercebridge...
 

The Bridge

The jumbled stones of the bridge, discovered during gravel quarrying in the seventies, are believed to be part of a large bridge that carried Dere Street, the Roman road linking York and Corbridge, across the River Tees.

Piercebridge Roman Bridge reconstructed
How the bridge may have looked (a picture of the peeling sign!)

It was the second bridge built at Piercebridge by the Romans, and is part of a much bigger Roman site, linking with a fort and vicus (settlement) on the other side of the river.

There is also some surviving evidence for the first bridge, including timber piles within the exisiting river. This was sited approximately 200 metres upstream of the second bridge and was probably made entirely of timber. The Tees is known for fierce flooding and it is thought that this may have been washed away sometime in the late 2nd century. The second bridge was then built downstream with stone abutments and strong stone piers, which supported a timber structure. It is estimated that this second bridge would have been over 120 metres in length, and the remains in the field provide important evidence of the skills of the Roman engineers.  

Piercebridge Roman Bridge stone block with worked hole
Piercebridge Roman Bridge stone block with worked hole

Piercebridge Roman Bridge southern abutment and paving
Piercebridge Roman Bridge southern abutment and paving


The Southernmost abutment is still standing and displays the holes of the iron straps that held the blocks together, as well as holes for the timber. There are also many other tumbled blocks displaying the 'iron-strap' recesses, a few with lead remaining in the holes.


Piercebridge Roman Bridge stone block with worked hole
Piercebridge Roman Bridge stone block with worked holes

A curious feature of the bridge is that the area beneath it was completely paved. This has led to an alternative theory that it was not, in fact, a bridge, but a navigation dam with an overspill channel. However, most archaeologists believe the paving was put in place to facilitate the flow of the river and protect the piers.

Piercebridge Roman Bridge paving
Piercebridge Roman Bridge paving
 
A fascinating site, managed by English Heritage, and free to visit (just park in the main car park of the George Hotel - in the far corner is a sign,) and yet Piercebridge has more to offer.... 


The Fort

A short walk over the existing bridge, turning right at the end down some steps, under an archway at the side of the first houses, then along a footpath on the left, and you reach the excavated remains of the Eastern elevation of a large Roman fort which was possibly called Morbium.
Piercebridge Roman Fort East Gate excavations
Piercebridge Roman Fort East Gate excavations

Built in about 260 AD and occupied until well beyond 400 AD, most of this large fort now lies beneath the existing village green and surrounding buildings (which always seem to me to be mirroring the fort, as they surround the green in a rectangle.)

Piercebridge Village
Piercebridge Villag
Piercebridge Roman Fort East Gate excavations
Piercebridge Roman Fort East Gate excavations

The excavated remains include the East gate, a major courtyard building, possibly part of the commander's house, and parts of the defences, which are fascinating. 

"First of all there was a ditch with a very effective 'ankle breaker' gully in the bottom. If you survived this, then you had to cross the berm - the area between the ditch and the fort wall. This was littered with lilia - pits disguised with brushwood and possibly filled with sharpened wooden stakes. Intruders would have met a horrible end if they were unlucky enough to be impaled on these stakes."  - text from one of the information boards.


Piercebridge Roman Fort East Gate excavations
Piercebridge Roman Fort East Gate excavations

In the field opposite these excavations, was the civilian vicus (settlement.) This dates from aroundd 100 AD, predating the fort, and leading some to believe that there may have been an earlier fort, as these settlements usually developed after a fort was built. No evidence of an earlier fort has yet been found, however. 


My Grandfather's Clock

After visiting the bridge and the fort, consider dropping into the George Hotel, an interesting place to ponder the past whilst sipping at your preferred refreshment....it was a clock in this 16th century coaching inn that inspired American songwriter Henry Clay Work to write his greatest hit.

Whilst staying here, in 1874, Work heard the story of the longcase clock, which was said to have been owned by two brothers named Jenkins, who used to run the inn. When one brother died, the clock began losing time, and it stopped forever upon the death of the other. Work returned to America and wrote 'My Grandfather's Clock,' an instant hit.....  

"tick tock, tick tock, it stopp'd short, never to go again, when the old man died...."

The George Hotel is also said to have hosted the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin....

All in all, Piercebridge is a great little place to visit and spend a few hours musing over our amazing history....
 

Thanks for reading!

Anne

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Sources and further information:  

The Bridge and Fort: 
Time Team at Piercebridge  (Youtube video of the episode)
The Bridge: 
Piercebridge: 
My Grandfather's Clock:


2 comments:

  1. would love to visit. Hope they've dug around the bridge area in search of history!

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    1. Well worth it David! Don't know about around the bridge, but Time Team did visit in 2013 to investigate the river - Youtube link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwfcynACaEQ

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