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Widecombe History Group Talk June 2007

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Widecombe History Group Talk on Clapper Bridges


John Stuart - Clapper Bridges

John has been visiting Clapper Bridges for around five years and has, so far, found 214 of them. The first one was near Gidleigh and this started what may be described as an “obsession”.

The definition of a clapper bridge is flat stones held in place only by their own weight. Some of them have only one slab but they can consist of up to nine. Some have pillars, some are laid directly onto the banks (cart clappers).

At Gidleigh, there were two bridges close by. The leat has slab sides and is very regular, being used as the water supply for the tin mine. Also close by is the Tolmen Stone which is supposed to cure arthritis if you go down through the hole. John tried this but unfortunately it didn’t help his arthritis. A slide was shown of the Round Pound, the remains of a mediaeval smithy near Batworthy where metal tools have been discovered.

The next slide showed the clapper bridge over the Wallabrook at Babeny – apparently the subject of a gruesome tale although John would not tell us what is was. This bridge is dated at around the beginning of the 20th Century. Babeny is in Lydford Parish and all funerals had to take place there which meant a long trek with the coffins. The distance in good weather was eight miles, but in poor weather when the river was high, it was fifteen miles. Special dispensation could be given in bad weather for their dead to be buried at Widecombe as the nearest downstream crossing was at Dartmeet and upstream at Bellever. A curiosity is that the bridge at Bellever has the middle slab missing. Where is it? If it had fallen, it would probably be in the river as it would be virtually impossible to remove it. A solution to this may be explained by carved slots in the piers suggesting that the middle portion may have been wooden. There is also a small clapper bridge over Sherril Brook which has recently been repaired by the Dartmoor National Park.

At Huntington Warren there are several little bridges dated 1809 over apparently dry courses. These stones were split by feather and tare and were put there for the rabbits.

At Pizwell, the ancient clapper bridge has been built over for the new road. This has happened on many bridges, similar ones being found at Pudsham Down and below Dunstone. There is a very long clapper bridge at Bear Down, having five openings, 37’ long and 4’ wide. This is one of the “two bridges”, the other having been replaced by the present bridge in front of the hotel. At Teign Head, near Fernworthy, there is a bridge dated 1780 which was constructed to give access to new enclosures and a farm. This consists of nine slabs (laid 3x3) – a veritable motorway. At Okehampton Camp, an imitation clapper bridge has been built by the Army Engineers.

Other bridges that have been repaired by the Dartmoor National Park are at Foxworthy over the River Bovey and Leather Tor where the parapet was repaired. At Cross Furzes the bridge has been repaired several times and each time the date is engraved on the stonework, the earliest being 1468. At Lower Cator there is a very thin, long, narrow bridge – very graceful. Fairy Bridge on the Swincombe is now a new modern wooden bridge (a “clam” instead of a “clapper”).

John talked about leats on the moor, the first mentioned being Wheal Emma leat dated 1859. Wheal Emma was a copper mine operating between 1850 and 1906, about ten miles from Swincombe near Fox Tor Mire. The leat is crossed by several “cart clappers” where the stones are laid on the bank of the leat.

The next leat John mentioned was the Devonport leat, fed by the West Dart, Cowsic and Blackbrook rivers. The source is near Wistman’s Wood and it was built in the 1790s to supply the booming docks at Plymouth. An unusual feature on the Devonport leat is the “sheep leaps” which consist of two stones let into either bank but not meeting in the middle. Nearby there is a dump of well cut stones which are available for repairs when necessary.

Drake’s leat running from Burrator is in very good condition. At Windy Cross there is a stone designed to divide the water into two separate courses. Dartmoor Prison was built by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, at one time Steward to the Duchy of Cornwall. He later became a Gentleman Usher and was nicknamed “23rd June” – the shortest (k)night.

A particularly old clapper bridge is at Postbridge, at least as old as 1300. It is constructed in stone from two sources – Lower White Tor and Bellever Tor. One slab was replaced and repairs carried out 1879 by quarrymen from Merrivale. A clapper bridge not often seen is the one under water in Fernworthy Reservoir which is only visible in periods of extreme drought.

John know of only three clapper bridges on Exmoor, at Tarr Steps, Mutton High near Hartor and Chibetford over Pennycombe Water.

John’s talk was riveting and well illustrated by the many slides of clapper bridges in all their forms.

A most interesting evening.

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