A simple form of bridge design features a series of stone slabs set atop rock pilings. It’s perhaps one rung up from stepping stones placed in the water or logs laid from bank-to-bank on the evolutionary scale of bridge design. It certainly falls within the more primitive bridge construction types imaginable. In England, particularly the County of Devon, it’s a form known as a clapper bridge.
Devonshire lends itself to this simplistic bridge design due to its topography, particularly the moorlands protected today by Dartmoor National Park. An abundance of rain falls here, channeled from rounded granite hilltops known as tors into the river valleys and lowlands below. It forms moors of deep peat and watery bogs. Little drains quickly here.
Dartmoor gets its name from the River Dart, comprised of an east and west branch that join at Dartmeet. That’s tangential to our discussion. I simply enjoyed the naming convention: Dart; forming at Dartmeet; running through Dartmoor. It’s wonderfully descriptive.
Thus if people were to travel within or through Dartmoor, with all those small rivers and mucky bogs standing in their way, they could either take long detours or build lots of little bridges. They might have constructed something a bit more elaborate if there were only a few obstacles to traverse. That wasn’t the case in Dartmoor. Water stood everywhere. This leads to a rougher, less expensive solution: place a rock slab just wide enough to allow a pedestrian or maybe a cart move safely from one side of the obstacle to the other. Gravity alone holds everything in place without the benefit of mortar. Most of this construction took place from the middle ages through the early Nineteenth Century. They are quite common in Dartmoor and one gentleman has cataloged and visited more than 200 of them.
Arguably the Postbridge Clapper most personifies the style, or at least it’s the most famous instance.
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The clapper bridge at Postbridge may date back to the Thirteenth Century in some form, providing passage across the East Dart. It’s only about two metres wide. The bridge might be able to accommodate small carts but nothing much larger. Nonetheless each slab weighs about eight tons.
Many of the earlier clappers have been damaged by the ravages of time, particularly floods that washed portions of them away. It’s remarkable that the Postbridge clapper still stands and undoubtedly this contributes to its visual popularity. It also doesn’t hurt that this clapper can be seen easily from the modern roadway as this Street View image demonstrates. Only a brief walk separates Postbridge village from its clapper so tourists visit frequently.
Wikimedia Commons has a great page of Clapper Bridges in Dartmoor images. This one is known as the Teignhead Clapper.
It provides a greater level of clarity than a Street View image. Notice the stones forming the pilings and the slabs laid across them. The bridge was designed to connect the Teignhead Farm (now ruin) to nearby Fernworthy. It wouldn’t make sense to construct anything more elaborate than this. It’s an isolated spot with little traffic. A simple, inexpensive, yet elegant solution addressed the need at hand.
Of course not every clapper bridge of Dartmoor is fortunate enough to be in a condition similar to the pristine examples I’ve mentioned.
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More typical perhaps would be the remains of what was probably a clapper bridge I found in satellite imagery near Babeny. The rocks seem to too large and are placed too far apart to simply serve as stepping stones. They may have had slabs across them at one point to provide an easier crossing.
That’s a great game you can also play. Select just about any tiny rivulet in Dartmoor and you will encounter all types of fascinating clapper bridges or the remains thereof. Switch to photograph mode in Google Maps and undoubtedly you will be rewarded with any number of fascinating on-the-ground photographs.
I’d be the guy counting the clapper bridges if I were fortunate enough to live in Dartmoor.