Legend has it that the site of the current Long Bridge was determined when a parish priest dreamt of a boulder rolling down to the shore to mark the spot, a boulder that was subsequently found. Within sections of the modern church such instances of divine guidance may still be witnessed, so perhaps this tale should be given a little more credence than is usual.
Whilst it may have been a local parish priest who first championed the idea of providing a bridge, the Grenville family, with their holdings astride the Torridge (and possibly lacking control over the ford), had a vested interest in seeing it constructed. Bartholomew de Grenvile (d. 1325) actively supported the plans, but, despite this, it took the intervention of a bishop to make it happen. The first Long Bridge, a wooden structure, was built in the late 13th C. and operated in parallel with the ford. A chapel stood at either end, from which funds were raised to maintain the bridge, and re-build it should the need arise. The eastern chapel was dedicated to St Anne (traditionally understood to be the mother of the Virgin Mary). Both chapels sold indulgences, a type of purchasable pardon that, despite having lost touch with its theological roots, had become a popular way to raise finance for large civic projects. A seal, dating from 1693, indicates that both the chapels were on the upstream side of the bridge.
Starting with the bridge constructed in 1474, the wooden bridge provided the template for all the later masonry bridges, and some of its timbers still remain entombed amidst the stonework. Some of the widest spans are at the eastern end, and later diagrams show that these were subsequently the most strongly buttressed. If one assumes that practical reasons drove the location of the wider spans, this suggests that, in the 15th C., the river’s main channel graced the eastern shore. The heavier buttressing may be for a similar reason, but would have been completed at a much later date.
Tradition maintains that the bridge suffered from instability until wool bales were used in its foundation. Some have seen in this a reference to financial input from the wool industry, but the use of wool (and similar fiberous materials) to stabalise soft ground was an ancient engineering technique. Pliny describes how the Greeks constructed the Temple of Artemis, in Ephasus, on soft ground to mitigate the effects of earthquakes, but then had to stabalise the ground, using charcoal and fleeces, before they could build. The technique has been used in more recent times on Victorian viaducts, and is still being used, e.g. for some Lake District paths.