Because of my interest in the working heritage of ponies in general and of Fell Ponies in particular, the packhorse bridges of Cumbria fascinate me. Pack horses were the principal transport for trade goods in Cumbria beginning in the 1400s and continuing into the 19th century before roads made them obsolete. (1) (While they are commonly referred to as pack ‘horses,’ they were usually 14hh or smaller, so were ‘ponies’ by our modern definition.) The terrain of Cumbria, especially the Lake District, is rugged and has lots of watercourses, making fords largely impossible and bridges necessary. A map of England’s packhorse bridges shows the highest density in Cumbria, likely both because road building came to the area late and the more challenging terrain required more bridges.
Given my fascination with Cumbria’s packhorse bridges, I guess it’s no surprise that self control was totally lacking when an email arrived asking me about a particular bridge. The bridge in question was in a photograph I’d been given several years ago. At the time I labeled it Hardknott Pass, but when my inquirer asked about its specific location, some research was required. I dug back into my archives to find the original email and discovered the bridge’s name was actually Jubilee Bridge. That appeased my inquirer but left me puzzled.
I was puzzled because I’d done extensive research a few months before on packhorse bridges in Cumbria, and Jubilee Bridge hadn’t surfaced, either by name or location. The three books I have on packhorse bridges all have different collections of bridges described between their covers, and a map devoted to packhorse bridges has an even different set, so I knew that there was no such thing as an authoritative list.
When we traveled to Cumbria in 2015, I saw an opportunity to indulge my interest in pack horse bridges. I began by creating a composite list of bridges from all my sources. It was of great use because I could pull it out and determine which bridge was close enough to our day’s activities to warrant a detour to see it. (Click here to see one that we didn’t get a chance to hunt down because it has a reputation for being hard to find despite a relatively convenient location.) My list was also put to use when I laid out a pack pony trip that we took on an historic pack horse route including over a pack horse bridge.
What I didn’t know when I compiled my list was that there were more possible packhorse bridges in Cumbria than even appeared in all the sources I had on hand. Jubilee Bridge is one example. Another we happily discovered in the process of visiting a documented bridge and desiring not to engage with a herd of Belted Galloway cattle on one approach. Approaching the bridge from the other direction took us across a bridge not on my list. I later discovered a cryptic reference to the undocumented bridge in one book but it still wasn’t named so not listed anywhere.
The most intriguing bridge that I ran across in my research was Mardale. I couldn’t find it on any map, so I was grateful when a friend told me about the village of Mardale being flooded by Haweswater Reservoir in the 1940s (click here to see the remains of the village that emerged when the water level in the reservoir dropped during a drought in 1984.) There may have been as many as three pack horse bridges flooded beneath the reservoir. (3)
We ended up visiting just five of the nearly fifty bridges that are currently in my researched list. Perhaps over time even more will be added, like Jubilee Bridge. The unseen ones will warrant detours, should we ever find ourselves in Cumbria again, and in the mean time, tips about new ones will, like the email inquiry, no doubt cause distractions from any current task at hand. All the time I’ll be imagining heavily laden ponies passing along the route hard at work.
I’m grateful to Sue Millard for pointing me to the picture of Gaisgill Bridge and to Eddie McDonough for kindling my fascination with pack horse bridges.
- ‘TRANSPORT SAGA. 1646 – 1947’ as referenced at http://archive.oneguyfrombarlick.co.uk/forum_topicfa9b.html
- See for instance Map #2 in Hinchcliffe, Ernest, A Guide to the Packhorse Bridges of England, A Cicerone Guide, Milnthorpe, Cumbria, 1994, p. 19.
- I’ve seen the names Arnold, Measand, and Chapel Bridges associated with Mardale, though they may not have all been pack horse bridges.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016
Many of my inquiries into the Fell Pony’s history can be found in the book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available on internationally on Amazon.com and by clicking here where author royalties are higher.
For more on the diverse work that ponies are capable of doing, you’ll find of interest the book The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally on Amazon.com and by clicking here where author royalties are higher.