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Spanning the Ouse
NO excuse is needed for a stroll through the history of York's magnificent bridges - but if you insist, there is a perfectly good one to hand. This Sunday, the Lord Mayor of York Irene Waudby will be leading a 'meander' - a leisurely walk through York taking in the bridges and riverside paths along the Ouse. The aim of the six-mile walk is to raise money for Age Concern and St Leonard's Hospice - but weather being fine, it promises to be a fun family day out as well.
To enhance enjoyment of the walk, what better than to know a little of the history of the bridges you will pass along the way? Yesterday Once More is glad to oblige.
The meander begins at York's new Millennium Bridge at 10.30am. Not much history there - except to recall that the bridge's opening was delayed by the worst floods in York for about 400 years.
Strolling northwards along New Walk, walkers will come first to the Blue Bridge - at least if they're on the eastern bank of the Ouse, that is.
The present bridge is the fifth across the Foss at this site, and dates back to 1930. The first - a wooden drawbridge - was built in 1738 and, according to Charles Brunton Knight in his 'History of the City of York', owed its existence mainly to the desire of the fashionable elite of York society to promenade along the riverside.
New Walk had been laid out in 1733, Knight records, and "the existence of this fashionable parade speedily revealed the desirability of means to cross the Foss, or Browney Dyke". In 1738 the Corporation of York "authorised the wardens of Walmgate to get such a bridge as they thought proper made over Browney Dyke." The bridge was named for the colour it was painted - a name and colour retained by the metal bridge today.
Why that first bridge was painted blue, Knight doesn't say. "The corporation had a surplus of blue paint, perhaps," suggests York historian Hugh Murray, helpfully.
Next, as you head northwards, is Skeldergate Bridge. Since medieval times a ferry had plied across the river at this point - but with the building of the railway station, it became increasingly obvious a more substantial crossing was needed.
By 1874 more than 600 people were using the ferry every day.
Thomas Page, who had been the engineer for Lendal Bridge, built almost 20 years earlier, was commissioned to design a bridge "with an iron superstructure, on a foundation of concrete and masonry, of a design resembling the centre arch of Westminster Bridge," Knight reports. The bridge was formally opened on January 1, 1881.
Until fairly recent times, the first span across the water on the Clifford's Tower side of the bridge could be lifted to allow for the passage of tall-masted ships. A picture in the Evening Press archives shows the span in the raised position. The lifting mechanism was sited where the tea rooms are now, but by 1971 it had seized up.
The next bridge encountered on your walk will be the most historic of them all - Ouse Bridge.
There has been a crossing at this point at least since Roman times, when Knight speculates there was probably a ferry. By pre-Norman Conquest times, there was probably a substantial wooden bridge linking Bishophill to the rest of York. But it's in 1154 that the bridge really makes its mark on history.
On May 9 that year William Fitzherbert, recently restored as Archbishop of York by pope Anastatius IV, made his entry into York. Knight takes up the tale: "The concourse of citizens which assembled to welcome him was so great, that as they passed over the old wooden structure of Ouse Bridge on the way from Micklegate Bar to the Minster, the bridge collapsed under the strain, and many of the crowd fell into the river."
Miraculously, no lives were lost - a fact which added greatly to the archbishop's prestige. "This circumstance was magnified in the popular account into being the miraculous result of the intercessions of the archbishop," Knight records. "His personal popularity, already great, was enhanced thereby into religious veneration."
Sadly, the poor archbishop didn't have long to enjoy such adulation. He died a few weeks later - increasing the veneration in which he was held.
There have been a number of bridges on the site since. None, however, achieved the notoriety of Fitzherbert's bridge. The stone bridge we have today dates from between 1810-1820.
Lendal Bridge, the next on the meanderer's itinerary, was the first of engineer Thomas Page's two bridges in York.
It was built on the site of yet another ferry crossing which, at the time of the bridge's opening in 1863, was operated, according to Hugh Murray, by John Leeman. The citizens of York, mindful that poor John was being put out of work by the relentless march of progress, had a whip-round for him - raising the princely sum of £15, says Mr Murray, which enabled him to set up in business as a carter.
The bridge was to have opened in 1861, but it's original designer, William Dredge, proved to be less fortunate than the lucky Archbishop Fitzherbert 700 years earlier.
Work was proceeding well when in September 1861 there was a freak accident. While some supports were being removed, three iron girders collapsed and fell in on to more below, which in turn collapsed. "The whole mass was precipitated, like a child's toyhouse, on the ground and into the river," a contemporary item in the Illustrated London News reported. Five men were killed. Dredge was sacked and Thomas Page was commissioned to design a new bridge from scratch, modelling it on London's Westminster Bridge, which he had also built.
Which brings us to Clifton Bridge, opened in 1963 on the site, once again, of an old ferry crossing. It wasn't the first bridge on the site. In 1961, the Army launched a 300-tonne temporary Bailey bridge across the river here, partly as a trial for a permanent bridge and partly to ease traffic flow for the wedding of the Duchess of Kent at York Minster, according to Hugh Murray.
The permanent bridge was opened a couple of years later by Alderman A Kirk in October, 1963 - making it York's newest... until the opening of the Millennium Bridge earlier this year.