The Long Bridge
Legend has it that the site of the current Long Bridge was chosen when a parish priest dreamt of a boulder rolling down to the shore to mark the spot. A boulder that was subsequently found.
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 – had a vested interest in seeing it constructed. Bartholomew de Grenville (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, and a seal – dating from 1693 – indicates that both the chapels were on the upstream side of the bridge.
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.
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. There is suggestion of financial input from the wool industry, but the use of wool (and similar fibrous materials) to stabilise soft ground was an ancient engineering technique, probably started by the Greeks in their construction of the Temple of Artemis, in Ephasus. It was a technique used to stabilise soft ground in order to build on it.