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Bishop Bridge

Bishop Bridge: Introduction

This site was the lowest bridging point on the river Wensum/Yare which meant that anyone on the south side of the Yare/Wensum valley who wanted to cross to the north and did not have a boat, would have to come inland 20 miles before they found a suitable place to cross. This was the site of an ancient east-west route which was probably a ford. This would connect the high ground of Mousehold Heath which came up to the river’s edge with a short causeway running from the higher land where St Martin at Palace Plain stands. It was known as Holmestrete and the slight raises in height which can be seen looking westwards along the street may mark islets in the marsh which were connected with a causeway to the ford.

At an early date the Benedictine Monastery built a wooden bridge at the end of the causeway to allowing the Prior to communicate with the Priory of St Leonards on Mousehold Heath and there is documentary evidence of it when it was repaired in 1249. After the attack on the Priory by the people of Norwich in 1272, three years later in 1275 the Prior was given licence to “make what gates he pleased out of the Monastery and to open and shut them and keep them locked at his pleasure, and also to erect a gate with a Bridge 20 foot broad thereto adjoining”. This was the first time the bridge became associated with a gateway into the city. This was probably built by 1295. Forty years later, Richard Spynk was paying for the construction of the City Walls and was given a charter to build a tower gate on the city side of the bridge. It was then around 1343 that the present structure was built making it one of the oldest bridges in Britain to still be in public use and the first stone built bridge in the City.. The semicircle recesses on the western side of the bridge are the bases of two of the gatehouse towers. The gate was also equipped with a drawbridge in its original form. In 1393 the responsibility for the repair and upkeep of the bridge was transferred to the City.

The gate was attacked in 1549 by Kett’s gunners up on Mousehold Heath and one of the two front towers collapsed killing some of the defenders. It was later replaced with two new Tudor towers. By the 18th century there was a general resentment about the costs needed to repair the walls and gates which were seen to have outgrown their usefulness. In 1790 Mr. Dove and Mr. Wilkins were asked to survey the gate and bridge and to compile a report about what needed to be done to save the bridge. They were concerned that the weight of the tower and its buttresses was having a detrimental effect on the two nearest arches. The first arch had a large chasm and the whole gateway lent to the north with settlement cracks, which had been repaired but were now open again. They were also concerned about carts with large loads of hay which were becoming stuck under the gateway and were sometimes so wedged in “as to threaten destruction and have considerably assisted in in weakening the fabric”. The repair would be extremely expensive and so they recommended that the gate be taken down and that without that weight some small repairs would take the bridge out of danger. So in 1791 Messrs J and R de Carle were paid £170 for taking down the gate and repairing the bridge.

It was not until 1923 that the bridge was again under threat. The City Corporation wished to take it down and replace it with a single span, wider bridge to carry more traffic and avoid the restriction to the river flow caused by the arches in times of flood, as can be seen by the plates marking the height of the 1912 flood. However the areas upstream had much higher flood plates due to the damming effect the narrow bridges had on the flood water.

The result was that Basil Cozens-Hardy proposed a meeting between a group of architects and members of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society under the chairmanship of Edward Boardman which took place in the Curat House on 23rd March 1923. This brought the Norwich Society into being. In May they met to hear J P Bushe-Fox from the Ministry of Works speak about the procedures for scheduling buildings with the Ministry. A sub-committee was formed that created a list of 27 buildings to be scheduled, including Bishop Bridge. Work stopped on Bishop Bridge. The Corporation came up with a compromise solution of widening the east side of the river to allow an additional arch which caused the comment “In this way the 14th century bridge will remain without holding up the flood water.” Although thought to be a much better solution this was never completed and the Society turned its attentions to more urgent threat such as Elm Hill.

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