Thursday, July 19, 2012

Medieval Packhorses and Packhorse Bridges

Horses and oxen have been used to draw wheeled vehicles for thousands of years.  But even horses and oxen can't pull their loads unless they have relatively smooth dry roads to do so.  The Romans built wonderful roads, but when they left the British Isles in the 5th century, those roads fell into disrepair.  All through the dark ages and the medieval period most of the population of Britain relied on a patchwork of meandering trails and lanes across the country side to send and receive goods.  Only the new turnpikes of the 18th century brought the widespread use of wagons to transport goods to the hinterlands. 

By far the most practical way to transport goods during the medieval era was by packhorses.  The sure footed animals could carry immense loads balanced on their backs.  Grain, fodder, fleeces, cloth and other agricultural products streamed from the country side to English market towns.  Pots, tools, wine, weapons and other manufactured goods were packed back to to waiting buyers.   These ancient trade routes were often called "packhorse routes."

Where the horses could not ford the streams, the locals built bridges to allow easy access to their communities.  Most were wooden, but some were solidly built of local stone.

 Scores of those ancient packhorse bridges have survived.   Packhorse bridges consists of one or more narrow lanes (one horse wide) over masonry arches.  They have low parapets so as not to interfere with the horse's panniers or side bags. 

 I was fascinated by these little (some not so little) bridges during my trips to Great Britain.  The little packhorse bridge in Altarnon, Cornwall is my favorite.  It is just wide enough to allow one horse to go over.  This bridge is mentioned several times in my novel The Archer's Son which is set in Altarnon in 1415. (I'm nearing completion of the first draft of this book.)

The Packhorse Bridge in Altarnon spans the little stream of Penpont Water.

One lane wide over the Altarnon Packhorse Bridge
St. Nonna's Church in the background

Clun Packhorse Bridge was built over the River Clun in the 14th century.  Most of its stone came from nearby Clun Castle, built by the Normans.  The castle was intended to guard the English frontier from the marauding Welsh.  But when the castle fell into disrepair in the 14th century, most of its stone was carried away.  A modern road now crosses this bridge.  One car at a time please!

Packhorse Bridge over the River Clun.  The stone was taken from nearby Clun Castle

The River Tamar separates the counties of Devonshire and Cornwall.  My company of archers in The Archer's Son, fords the river at this spot during their march to Plymouth Town to take shipping for France.   Local monks built the bridge here in 1437.  It is larger than most.  Horses can pass each other with ease (The monastery derived income from the bridge by charging a toll.).  It is still used today, but is a one-lane bridge for motor traffic.  We had to drive some of the original packhorse lanes to get to this isolated spot.  The lanes are now paved, but just wide enough for one vehicle.   No shoulders and the lanes usually had 3 - 5 feet tall hedge rows on each side.  We had to back up several times to let other traffic pass!  The bridge is built with "refuges" on the side where pedestrians can move out of the way of oncoming traffic. 

This packhorse bridge is still known as "Horsebridge" as is the little community around it.  It was built in 1437 over the River Tamar

This is a two lane horsebridge (single lane for modern traffic)
Notice the "refuge" that Miss Phyllis is standing in.


  1. Not so "Eras Gone By" as one might expect. Check out I'm just saying.

  2. Emil, things that work are always "rediscovered" when the need arises. I suspect the pack horses being used in Afghanistan are facing similar road conditions as in medieval Europe!