How the Old Dee Bridge has bridged the era

As Chester’s oldest bridge, the Old Dee Bridge straddles the River Dee from Lower Bridge Gate and is on the route between England and North Wales. The original bridge dates from Roman times, and was rebuilt in medieval times, meaning the bridge that stands today dates from about 1357.

The Roman Bridge

The original Old Dee bridge was constructed by the Romans and is thought to have consisted of stone piers that supported a timber carriageway. The exact date of the bridge’s construction is not known, but historians put it at around 74 CE. The original bridge was slightly downstream from the site of the present bridge.

The bridge did not survive the Dark Ages. In the 10th Century, there was no bridge across the River Dee. Travellers crossed the river by ferry.

The 11th to 14th Century

Sometime before 1086, the bridge was rebuilt. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book and was, at that time, reached by a causeway. It was built for the 1st Earl of Chester, Hugh d’Avranches. The Doomsday Book describes the building and repairing of the bridge in the following terms:

“When, for the purpose of repairing or rebuilding the wall or the bridge of the city, the proper officers commanded that one man be furnished from each hide, the lord of such man that did not attend was fined forty shillings to the King and the Earl.”

Somewhere around 1279, much of the timber bridge was swept away by floods and was repaired.

Edward I was said to have crossed over the wooden Dee bridge. He did not like the bridge and decreed that a stone alternative should replace it. The people of Chester however, convinced the King that the bridge was not their responsibility and refused to replace it. Sadly, there is no documented proof that this story is true.

The present-day bridge was built in about 1357 when Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince, ordered the citizens of Chester to rebuild the bridge in stone. He said it should be built:

“…with all speed their part of the bridge of Dee… in the same manner and style as the remainder of the bridge which has been newly made”

By 1387, the bridge was in disrepair. The people of Chester pleaded with Richard II for funds to repair the bridge. The King granted their request and decreed:

“Know ye that of our special grace and at the supplication of our lieges, the Commonalty of our town of Chester, and for consideration that as many have been drowned in the water of the Dee since the bridge has been destroyed and broken. And also, because the same town for that reason is very greatly impoverished as we are informed, we have granted to the fabric and repair of the aforesaid bridge all the profits of the Passage of the said water at Chester and the Murage which used to be granted there for the walls, to be received until that bridge is rightly and reasonably completed.”

The 14th to 19th Century

Between the 14th and 19th Centuries, there were many changes to the Old Dee Bridge.

In the late 14th or early 15th Century, the bridge saw the addition of a tower to form part of Chester city’s defences. In 1407, a tower gatehouse was constructed, and in 1499, the south end of the bridge was rebuilt.

In the middle of the 16th Century, a rule was enforced to help preserve the bridge. It was believed that carts with iron bound wheels damaged the bridge and were banned by the city authorities.

By 1773, the bridge was considered to be too narrow and dangerous for the large amount of traffic that travelled across it. Despite this concern, it was about 60 years before another bridge was constructed across the River Dee.

This tower and gatehouse were demolished in 1781. In 1826 the bridge was widened to include a foot way.

Traffic continued to pose challenges though, and by the early 19th Century, traffic levels were such that the Old Dee Bridge was deemed inadequate, so in 1832 construction was commenced on Grosvenor Bridge. When this opened in 1834, it was the longest single-span bridge in the world.

The present-day bridge is constructed from local sandstone. It has seven arches, all of which are different dimensions. The two northern arches used to lead to mills. The south arch replaced a medieval drawbridge. The difference in arch sizes is due to the variable nature of the river bed. Two of the arches are segmented, four are pointed and one is semi-circular.

Weirgate

At the city end of the bridge, there is a weir that was constructed in 1093. A passageway enables boats to travel between the River Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal. This is the only example in Britain of a “weirgate”. Due to the tidal nature of the River Dee, the weirgate is only safe at specified periods.

In 1996, a narrowboat tried to navigate the weirgate and slipped into the weir. It remained stranded until the next high tide.

The hydroelectric plant

The City end of the bridge has a hydroelectric power station that dates from 1913. It housed three turbines that generated electricity from the force of the weir. In 1948, they generated 40% of Chester’s electric power needs. Up until 2015, the plant was owned by United Utilities. The plant is no longer in use, but there are plans to redevelop the site and install a new hydroelectric facility.

National Heritage status

The Old River Dee Bridge is designated by the National Heritage List of England as a Grade I listed building. This means that it will be preserved for the enjoyment of residents and visitors to Chester for many years to come.

The River Dee is a popular tourist spot, and today’s visitors to Chester can cross the river on the Old River Bridge just as people did in Roman times.

Posted by Mark
June 20, 2017
General

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