Tuesday, 22 February 2011
The location of Stopham Bridge, on the river Arun just to the west of Pulborough, could hardly be more idyllic. Yet let's not fool ourselves: cars and lorries passing on the new bridge built a few yards upstream in 1986 can sometimes sploil this peaceful picture. Back in 1965 Pevsner and Nairn, in the volume on Sussex of the The Buildings of England series, were concerned the construction of a new bridge would destroy the quiet atmosphere surrounding Stopham Bridge and to a certain extent they were right. Having said that, the new bridge certainly helped to preserve this six hundred year-old structure, which was damaged by passing vehicles on numerous occasions, and visitors can now take time to appreciate the best preserved medieval bridge in Sussex without having to dodge vehicles and seek refuge in the recesses over the piers.
The current bridge was most certainly built in 1422-23, in place of an early fourteenth century wooden bridge. Before a permanent structure spanned the River Arun people had to use a ford but that was only possible as long as water levels were not too high. That's why a ferry, known as Estoven or Eastover Ferry was introduced. It belonged to John de Stopham "at the Ford" and ran until the wooden bridge was built.
Like many medieval bridges, the one at Stopham is a pretty massive and solid structure. It consists of seven semi-circular arches -six with a span of 11 ft 9 in. and a central one with a span of 12 ft 9 in.- resting on fairly wide piers. Such sturdy piers were needed because the arches were built one by one. Therefore they had to be able to withstand the thrust of one arch before the next one was in place. This had both advantages and drawbacks. Should one arch be destroyed or be partly damaged by wear and tear and need to be replaced, the rest of the bridge would not collapse. However the spans were so short and the piers so wide that flood waters could barely pass, increasing the risk of washing the bridge away. This problem was only partially solved by the blunt cutwaters, which reduce the pressure on the bridge and damage to the piers caused by floating objects. At Stopham they rise the whole height of the piers and form triangular recesses on the north side. As there is less pressure on the south side -Stopham is at the tidal limit of the River Arun- the cutwaters support above the level of the arches half-hexagonal buttresses which form larger recesses where pedestrians could retrat when a wider vehicle crossed the bridge.
During the Civil War one arch was destroyed. It was replaced by a drawbridge until permanent repairs were carried out in the 1630s or 1650s but that did not change the general appearance of the bridge. However one cannot fail to notice that something happened to the central arch. Indeed it was raised in 1821-22 to allow the passage of higher barges on the Arun navigation. Small boats had been able to navigate along the Arun until Pallingham Quay, north of Stopham, since 1575 but in 1785 Parliament authorised the improvement and extension of the navigation until Newbridge, near Billingshurst. In 1816 the Arun & Wey Junction Canal, which extended from Newbridge to Stonebridge just south of Guildford, was completed, making it possible for barges to travel all the way to London. The volume of goods carried on the Arun navigation increased but Stopham Bridge prevented the use of larger boats. Therefore the decision was taken in 1821 to alter it. It reopened on July 7, 1822. The original materials were reused for the new arch but the piers were rebuilt using red bricks instead of Bargate stones.
The only other modifications to the bridge were carried out in 1865, when it was extended at both ends, with the addition of an extra arch for flood relief at the west end, and the western approach was realigned not to interfere with the alley leading to Stopham House.
As long as traffic was sparse, this medieval bridge coped well. However it suffered extensive damage during the Second World War, when heavy army vehicles passed over it. It was repaired after the war but was further damaged by lorries in the following decades. The parapet on the curvy approaches was hit on several occasions but the impact they had on the structure itself was more worrying. Additionally, being only 12 ft wide, the bridge often created a bottleneck on the Pulborough - Petworth road. This explains why a new bridge was finally built in the mid-1980s.
At least it is now possible to enjoy a pint and some food in the gardens of the White Hart and to look at the bridge without breathing the fumes of the passing traffic.