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Clapper Bridges

The Clappers of Dartmoor‘ sounds very much it should be followed by the “Bells of St. Martin’s” but in this instance it refers to a type of bridge found on the moor and in other upland areas of Britain. One thing Dartmoor is not lacking is rivers, streams and leats which when travelling all need crossing by one means or another. There are basically three ways to cross such water courses; by way of a ford, stepping stones, (known on Dartmoor as ‘Steps’) and bridges.  There are three types of bridge on the moor, the larger conventional bridge, wooden bridges (which are called clams) and clapper bridges. William Crossing, (1990, p.14), describes a clapper bridge as being: ‘A bridge composed of immense slabs of unwrought granite laid upon buttresses and piers of the same… They are mostly on the line of pack-horse tracks and were probably built by the farm settlers in the Forest (of Dartmoor)’. Whilst being a fairly good description it also should be added that some of the smaller clappers have no piers and are laid directly into the banks of the watercourse and also some Dartmoor clappers are associated with mining activities.

English Heritage give a more generic description as being; ‘A clapper bridge is a structure designed to carry a trackway across a river by means of one or more large, flat stone slabs, either resting directly on the river banks or supported on dry-stone piers. They are recognised in the field as monuments of dry-stone construction of simple form and include everything from a slab thrown across a stream to the “classic” examples with slabs and piers of drystone construction. Many examples still survive and are in use today, others survive as ruined structures and are recognised by piers projecting from the river bed, sometimes with a few slabs still in place’, (online source 1990 – found HERE). There are two distinct types of Dartmoor clappers; bridges with a single span or bridges with multiple spans and they can range from 1 – 13 metres in length. In some cases there are two slabs lying side by side thus forming a much wider span which allowed bigger carts etc to cross.

It has been estimated that today there are around about 200 clappers still to be found in-situ upon the moor though doubtless the ravages of time have lost many more. Sadly the on-line National Monuments Record only lists 28 clappers for the whole of Devon, maybe there is some work to do here? Nobody can be sure as to their date although as Hemery notes: ‘Many remain on the moor, some belonging to comparatively recent times. None is earlier than Medieval times‘, (1983, p.30). Having said that, nobody can be exactly sure as to the age of clappers, indeed, if one travels to Exmoor there is Tarr Steps which is purported to date back to prehistoric times and has been commemorated in a stamp issue of 1968

Probably the most famous and biggest Dartmoor clapper bridge is the one at Postbridge which over the years has been the subject for many artists, photographers, writers and film makers. Despite their sturdy construction and weight there have been many instances when various rivers in full spate have washed away the heavy spans as if they were mere twigs in the fierce flood waters.

The actual origin of the word ‘clapper’ is said to have stemmed from the old Anglo Saxon word cleac which translates as ‘stepping stone’, (Clark Hall, 2004, p.70), apparently the Dartmoor dialect then mutated the word into ‘clapper’. This does beg the question that if clappers date back to medieval times why are their roots lying in a language used prior to their advent?

Below are some the well known and not so well known Dartmoor clappers, some past some present:

On January 18th 2011 I received an email from Tasmania along with some photographs, it appears that after seeing this page someone was inspired enough to build a clapper bridge in Tasmania. Apparently it is the first of it’s kind ever to be constructed in this country and I must say a fine job they made of it too.

Since posting the above I have received some further information regarding the Tasmanian Clapper from David Beaver:

I’m very happy that you like our clapper bridge and that you have posted some pics on your website. The clapper is on a new section of the North South Track on Mt Wellington ( see attached link below for more info, or Google “North South Track Mt Wellington”). Mt Wellington forms the spectacular backdrop to the City of Hobart and has an extensive network of tracks – some of them very old. My original brief was to design a suspension bridge over the New Town Rivulet, however I was very concerned that this would look out of place, be very expensive and could easily be taken out by a falling tree. I thought a clapper would be much better in this location. If a flood dislodges the stone it can easily be winched into place again whereas a normal bridge would need to be completely rebuilt. I downloaded some pics and info from your Dartmoor website and showed it to the track crews and project managers and fortunately they agreed to build it. The stone itself weighs around 2.5 tonnes and was sourced from the creek bed. Everyone is very happy with the result – it blends beautifully with the natural setting.”

I have received another update on the Tasmanian Clapper and this time Richard has sent a video of it’s construction which can be found at the link below. It is truly amazing the amount of research and regulations that are needed to construct a modern clapper, no longer is a location and bar iron sufficient to build one.

The Tasmanian Clapper

Clark Hall, J. R. 2004. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Canada: Cambridge University Press

Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.

Hemery, E. 1983, High Dartmoor, London: Robert Hale Publications

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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