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Article 1936

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Bridges of the Western Rother

By THE REV. A. A. EVANS. Photographs by R. C. CHANDLER

 

The Western Rother has its birth on the Hampshire side, at Nore Hill, near the home of Gilbert White. It enters Sussex at Durford, where once a comely abbey stood, and now, so complete was the spoliation of the sixteenth century, not one stone of the buildings remains upon another. But three bridges are left, built and for long maintained by the abbot and monks of Durford. Of these three one is out among the fields crossing a ditch, little seen and little known and partly a ruin ; another, which serves as the first illustration of the series which Mr Chandler has picturesquely reproduced, is close to the abbey site on a side road which runs from the Petersfield to Midhurst highway to South Harting. The third, the Habin Bridge, a sturdy erection doing now with efficiency more carrying than ever before in its long life, is below Rogate Church on the road going south.

These three bridges, which span the waters of the Western Rother where it enters the county, are among the very few of medieval date belonging to Sussex and they owe their existence to the lost abbey. There were many ancient bridges in Sussex, some of them more picturesque in appearance than these of Durford, such as Beeding, Robertsbridge and St. Peter de Vetere Ponte, of Annington, each of some beauty and with chapels attached where the wayfarer could stop and thank God for a dry crossing, but in later years they have been swept away by cold-eyed and impatient public authorities, and in most cases have been replaced by bridges which, whatever their utility, are dull and uninspiring. The three bridges of Durford are in date of early fifteenth century, of rugged, heavy character; the arches are round, ribbed underneath-a sign of medieval work-and with massive cutwaters. That of Habins is of five arches, but the three middle ones seem to have been partly rebuilt in the eighteenth century. The projecting keystone in the central arch is a sign of the period when many bridges were being rebuilt to meet the needs of an increasing coach traffic.

 

 

Yet Durford Abbey was never rich. It gave out of its poverty for the passers-by. From an account of the abbey by Mr Salzman (V.C.H. II. 89) it seems always to have been in a state of debt and the abbot in fear of arrest for non-payments. At the Dissolution, when Layton, the commissioner, arrived, he writes of it to the vice-regent Cromwell, his master, with high contempt: "The poorest abbey I have seen . . . far in debt and in decay," and proceeds to sweep the whole income, which was £108 13s. 9d., into the deep pocket of the king; and so the bridges, as some other appurtenances of the Abbey, become a public charge.

The river winds by Terwick Mill, a spot of unusual beauty, but out of the way and little seen by the ordinary traveller. It then makes a well-known crossing by Trotton Church. Here we come to one of the oldest and noblest bridges of the south country. Trotton Bridge was built about 1400, or a little before, by Thomas, Lord Camoys, whose home was close by. It is a picturesque bridge, strong, well designed and, for its time, of spacious proportions. There are five semi-circular arches, each ribbed beneath in strong chamfered lines, and with cutways which project well into the river. The parapet until modern days had recesses over the buttresses where passers-by could linger outside the line of traffic and watch the swirl of waters beneath. Now the parapet has been made straight. Thomas, Lord Camoys, was a mighty man in his time, a hero of Agincourt, and his shadow was great in the land. Now all that remains is his dust within a lonely altar tomb in the church adjoining, and this glorious bridge, which still assists man and beast and machine over the waters. The early bridges of our land, when crossings passed from being fords or ferries, were nearly always of timber and made only sufficiently wide for the passing of foot travellers and pack horses. London Bridge was of wood until 1176; Arundel was of timber until 1724. A stone bridge required constructional skill and specialised craftsmanship, and came later. Such could only be undertaken by great lords like Thomas Camoys of Trotton ; by bishops, such as that reared at Houghton, as it once was, with many spans and a fair chapel by the bishops of Chichester; or like those of Durford Abbey on the Western Rother and Robertsbridge Abbey on the Eastern Rother. They were regarded in their time as gifts of piety, "a blissid worke," and in the old reckoning bridge builders were put among the elect of heaven among saints and apostles whose good works follow after.

 

Between Trotton and Midhurst the Western Rother follows a wrigglesome course and passes under five bridges, some rather old, though not so old as those we have already seen, and others modern and ugly. I do not know why these two adjectives should come together, but they describe matters of fact. Ancient stone bridges belong to ages of poverty, yet wherever we find them they spring from the waters and span the banks as things of living beauty. They have noble piers, splendid cutwaters, recessed parapets and, in a wonderful way, blend with surroundings of trees, green banks and running waters. In contrast let the reader look at Exceat Bridge as a modern type, made of metal, or Longbridge above it, made of brick, or new Robertsbridge which replaced the old one, or almost any other of the nineteenth century bridges, an age which brought a vast accession of riches and personal comfort, but also, let it be said, brought poverty of soul and a sordid outlook. Money is not wealth.

 

 

 

All the remaining bridges of the Western Rother--some ten or more-except for two or three which escaped the spoiling hands of road surveyors and public authorities, are a sorry lot. We shall mention them as belonging to the subject, but not as things to be sought out by the rambler in search of the fair things of Sussex.

After leaving Trotton the next bridge is Chithurst. It is of brick and has two arches. Its position at least is one of beauty. The banks are well-wooded, and just above it, on a tumulus which must be prehistoric, is a tiny church of unusual charm and in date about 1080. Iping comes next. It is more considerable than Chithurst, being of stone with five arches each having five ribs. This is always a sign of early and good work. Iping Bridge does not come under the strictures I have just made. It is, though much tampered with, old work. It lacks the spaciousness and massive vigour of Trotton and Durford in cutwaters and piers, but it has the gracious touch of distant years. It is a fair thing.

From Iping, following two devious loops, Stedham Bridge is reached. It is of six arches, three of stone and three of brick with shallow buttresses. The bridge can only be described as having little outstanding feature, of any date and no charm. At Woolbeding, little more than a mile away, we reach again a medieval crossing and, except for some latter-day alterations, chiefly to the parapet, it is altogether a pleasing thing. There are four arches which must be described not as semi-circular but segmental, and under each a groining of three chamfered ribs. Woolbeding Bridge is of the same date, or but little later, to those of Durford and Trotton, but in its four, or nearly five, centuries of service the piers have slightly given out, and there is just a perceptible twist in the arches. Nevertheless it still bravely carries the increased traffic of to-day.

Midhurst, at the edge of its junction with Easebourne, has a well-known and much used bridge. A huge mill stands by it. It is of two stone arches, modern and efficient. What of beauty belongs to it is largely derived from its setting by the mill race, the old cottages and fringing of tree-lined and flower-lined banks.

The Western Rother now takes its way through Cowdray Park, and the next four bridges-South Ambersham, Selham, Coultershaw and Shopham-are all modern and plain.

In 1791 an Act of Parliament gave authority to the Earl of Egremont to make the Western Rother navigable from Midhurst down to its junction with the Arun below Shopharn Bridge. Three of these bridges date from that time. Coultershaw is a little later; it belongs to 1800 when an Act was passed for a new road from Petworth to Duncton and Chichester, and this led to the making of Coultershaw Bridge, which is close to Petworth railway station and close to the site of a mill owned from 1240 by the prior and monks of Shulebrede.

This bridge has an historical significance. It led to the abandonment and destruction of the Rother Bridge which had given its name to the hundred and for many centuries to the stream which passed under it. The Rother is not the original name of the river. The old name is the Scire, a Saxon word which means "bright," "clear," and describes these pebbly waters.

 

 

It is a curious fact of Sussex history that every river belonging to it has lost its original name. The Westbourne which parts, near the coast, the county from Hampshire is now commonly called the Ems. The Arun of old was the Tarrant; the Adur the Sore; Ouse, the Mid-wynd; Cuckmere, the Wandelmestrow and the Eastern Rother the Lymney. Each of these names was in some degree descriptive.

The etymology of Rotherbridge is "cattleway." Any sort of way over a river is a convenience, and so Rotherbridge became the gathering place of the moot for the hundred, and in time the word was transferred to the river and so the ancient designation, Scire, was lost. In the account book of the Water Bailiff of Arundel, The High Stream of Arundel, which has been published by Joseph Fowler, the stream is also called "West Water," and on the bailiff's map is the curious entry, "the Old Acquaintance that comes from Hindhead" ; but evidently the bailiff's knowledge of the river source is astray. John Leland, a lover of things old and of charm, visited the Rother bridge about 1540 and records that it was "a fayre Bridge of Stone made by one, Parson Aeon, who builded the Spire of the faire steeple there in the towne" (of Petworth).

Of the four bridges just mentioned it is enough to say they have little distinctive character. Ambersham, Selham and Coultershaw are of brick and stone and of single span. Shopham, where the stream has considerably widened, has three spans. This bridge is in the line of an ancient one, for there is mention in a roll of 1279 to "ad pontem de Shobeham." All have mills at or near the site; that of Selham is recorded in Domesday Book.

Two more bridges meet us just before, and when the Rother loses itself in the Arun, and both are of fame and beauty-Fittleworth and Shopham.

At Fittleworth there is mention as early as 1199 of a bridge close to the holding of Ernulf the Fisherman. Nearly always old bridges were places where several roads met and people congregated; so at Fittleworth an inn came into existence, the precursor of The Swan of to-day; also a smithy, and a mill, and cottages, and thus Lower Fittleworth took birth, all because of a bridge.

There are two bridges at Fittleworth, both of stone; one of two arches belongs only to the mill stream; the other, of three, spans the river. Of the arches of the river bridge two are pointed, and the centre one, rebuilt to meet the needs of increasing river traffic, is loftier and has a rounded top. The age of the bridge is sixteenth century, though the piers and lateral work may be older.

That of Stopham, two miles below Fittleworth, is not a bridge of the Rother but the Arun. We include it in this list because it is a notable structure and- very near the waters of the Rother. Barely half a furlong separates the point of the meeting of the two streams. It is probably the best known bridge in Sussex, famous for its beauty, for the dignity of its masonry and the rare setting of swirling waters and green banks. More traffic now goes over Stopham Bridge than any other in Western Sussex, and it bears a weight and burden more than ever was contemplated by the first builders. It was the parson of Pulborough who built it, or by a large contribution made it possible, out of love of God and in pity for straining horses and tired men. I hope he has gotten a good place in the realms above. That was in 1423, or shortly after. The bridge is of seven arches and followed an earlier one of timber which, earlier still, had replaced a ford. To this day the home, close by, of the Barttelots is "Ford Place," and the founder is described as "John of Stopham atte the ford." The centre arch, like that we noticed at Fittleworth, is raised; there are mighty cutwaters and the parapet has recesses, never more needed than to-day for foot passengers.

 

 

Stopham Bridge is loved and admired all over the land, but whether it can continue to carry the heavy and increasing traffic which now besets it is a question which is vexing the soul of the county authorities. It is not a matter of motor-cars-these are light things-but great lorries, vans and trailers of many tons weight. At present it is bearing up under the strain, but for how long ?

So our ramble ends. Just below Stopham Bridge the "Scire"-the "West Water," the "Rother"-is mated to the Arun and together they move to the sea.

From Volume 10 of the Sussex County Magazine 1936

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