In 1846, a House of Commons Select Committee heard of the difficulties in routing the proposed North Devon Railway through Lapford. An expensive 418m tunnel was seemingly required. The tunnel was never built—an alternative route was found—but not without considerable engineering effort. Major earthworks and the rerouting of the River Yeo were required to enable the river, railway and leat to be crossed near Lapford Mill. The result was the curved embankment onto a series of two bridges, still in use today.
THE OLD BRIDGE
The work involved dismantling the existing mill bridge which was almost certainly an old structure. It could even have been same bridge shown on Saxton’s 1575 map of Devon. For centuries, the main route into the village had been from the highway to the north of the village, so there would have been no previous need to upgrade the mill bridge.
There is no known image of the bridge. It was probably the subject of the oil painting An Old Bridge at Lapford (by G B Willcock) displayed at the British Institution in 1848, but the fate of the painting is not known. Some descriptive accounts of the bridge do exist. It is clear that the bridge had a reputation for being dangerous and was used with trepidation. It was narrow with parapets “less than a yard high”—a design typical of bridges intended to carry a single horse with panniers. A newspaper report in 1850 was damning in its criticism of the bridge’s safety.
The wretched apology for a bridge at the foot of the hill leading to this village has long been subject of comment for travellers. The dangerous approach, with sharp turn in the road, is bad enough; but the bridge, itself, is worse, if possible. The utmost precaution is necessary, particularly on dark nights, as, owing to the very narrow parapet, passengers are in imminent peril of “shuffling off this mortal coil” into the water beneath.
Surely in this age of improvement such a grievous evil ought to be remedied. It is not many years since that a lamentable and fatal accident happened at this spot; still no notice has been taken of it.
The fatality referred to was almost certainly that of Samuel Hall, who fell from the bridge in 1848. It took three days for a search party to find his body. See The Birthday Invitation
The bridge was not drawn on the 1840 tithe map of the village, so its precise location is not known; however, the map shows the road to the bridge going through today’s entrance gates to Lapford Mill. It bore right towards the river which, in those days, flowed about 10 metres closer to Bury Cottages (now Watersmeet Cottage).
The bridge probably started at a point where the river now flows, about 25 metres upstream of today’s crossing, and finished near the end of Kelland Cottages on what is now the raised road to the new bridges
For much of its history, the bridge had little traffic. Goods to the village travelled by waterway or by packhorse through the northern part of the parish. The bridge would only have been used by those travelling towards Zeal Monochorum or Nymet Rowland on foot or horseback. This changed in 1830 when the new turnpike road was constructed through the Taw Valley. For the next 24 years (1830-1854) the narrow bridge became Lapford’s link to all major towns. The slope down from the turnpike, followed by a sharp turn onto the bridge, made the bridge quite unsuitable for the kind of vehicles wanting to use it.
THE LAST DAYS OF LAPFORD’S FORD
The new bridges of 1854 were welcome but, with change, came the loss of an ancient crossing and the probable site of the original “lap-ford” — the name may refer to a clapper bridge next to a ford (Lappa=stone), or the steep hill up from a ford (Eslapa=slope).
The village lost its one-time raison d’être … and gained two ugly bridges! But, with the changes, came road, rail and telegraph connections. The village emerged from insularity and self-sufficiency into a rapidly changing and interconnected world.