Hidden Histories – A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape

A spotter’s guide to the British landscape

Reviewer: Elizabeth Rogers

WHY is a bridge over a river or canal such a particular style and where, on some of them, can you find observable features that help in dating them?
Clues to carrying out a little detective work when walking alongside a waterway or elsewhere in the countryside are contained in a new book by the anthropologist and broadcaster Mary-Ann Ochota, who is a familiar face on TV programmes such as Time Team.
She has recently published Hidden Histories – A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape in which bridges are one of the landscape features she enables her readers to investigate.
To start from the most ancient, there are the clapper or clam bridges, a simple means of crossing the water by the placing of stepping stones or slabs of handily accessible stone reaching from bank to bank. As they were often in remote areas, such as on moorland, many have never needed to be replaced by a full-scale bridge.
Most mediaeval bridges were made of wood so would not have lasted for more than one generation although some were built of stone. Some of these may have been widened in due course and this can be observed at looking at differences between the two sides.
If small rivers were eventually made navigable, new bridges to enable craft to pass beneath were built and they may be signs indicate this with stonework from the foundations of the earlier bridge still there to be spotted.
Some very early bridges such as a Roman bridge, once on the River Tees in County Durham, are now marooned on dry land – the course of the river having changed over the centuries.
Canal bridges allowed horses to cross the water when the towpath changed from being on one side to the other. They were often cobbled and had rows of protruding stones added to the ramps to prevent the horses slipping. If the towpath continued on a straight line beneath a bridge, there may be grooves won in to the faces of cornerstones where thousands of horses have passed through, the towropes rubbing against the stone.
The author offers clues to deciphering the mysteries of why some structures are distinctly different from others, or may just have minute details which can tell a great deal about their past.
As well as the waterways, her book covers such information on many other aspects of the countryside – fields, hedges, commons, woodland, stone walls and the buildings within a village.
Hidden Histories – A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape is published by Frances Lincoln (Hardback, 288 pages, £20).
ISBN: 978-0-7112-3692-9