‘The chasm cannot be regarded without shuddering ; nor will the stoutest of heart meditate unappalled upon the dreadful anecdotes connected with the spot.’
There are literally hundreds of bridges on Dartmoor and probably if you asked anyone to name one of them they would come up with Postbridge. If you asked the same question two hundred years ago the answer may well be Lydford Bridge, over the centuries artists have painted it, authors have written about it and poets have poeted about it. Most seem to portray the bridge and the river below as a dark and sinister place where one would not wish to be on a dark, stormy night. Granted it has been the scene of several suicides which would not add to the glamour of the place and granted there is a long drop which would not appeal to those suffering from vertigo but hey, give it a chance. One of the earliest writers to grizzle about the bridge was Tristram Risdon when sometime in the mid 1600s he wrote the following:
‘I have but one thing more to mention, and that is the Bridge at the end of the town, under which the river is gathered into such a streight by the fretting of the earth between the rocks, that it seemeth a cavern itself, as loath to see the desolation of the place. It maketh such an hideous noise, that being only heard, and not seen, it causeth a kind of fear to the passengers, seeming to them that look down to it, a deep abyss, and may be numbered amongst the wonders of the kingdom.‘, (1970, p.225).
Some time in the late 1700s William Gilpin the founder of the Picturesque Movement paid a visit to Lydford, he was the Bill Bryson of his times and wrote about the places he visited. In turn the socially affluent classes began to follow in his footsteps in search of the dramatic, aesthetically pleasing and rustic landscapes around the country. It was probably the following observations of Gilpin that drew people’s attention to the bridge:
‘In our way, were were to pass a bridge, which we were informed was thrown over the rocky sides of two frightful precipices of the river Lid, each eighty feet high. The idea was terrific and we expected a very grand scene. But we were disappointed, from the omission of this circumstance in the intelligence, which was that the separation between these two treacherous precipices is little more than the crevice of a rock, and, in fact, we had passed it before we knew we had been upon it. It is seen by looking over the battlements of the bridge. If the day be clear, you just discover the river foaming among the rocks many fathoms below. If not, you must be content with listening to its roar. The music, however is grand ; for if the river be full, the notes swell nobly from the bottom varied, as they are, ascending so narrow and broken a funnel, (Gilpin, 1798, pp.179 – 180).
It appears that Gilpin was none to impressed with the visual impact that the bridge had on the landscape but was pleased with the soundscape of the place. Ironically the same could be said today as most visitors cross over the bridge being totally unaware of what lies on the other side of its ‘battlements’. They are probably more concerned with getting their vehicles over the narrow span and not hitting on coming vehicles.
For centuries it seems to have been obligatory for any visitor attraction to have one or more legends attached to it and Lydford Bridge was no exception. Probably the most famous is the story of the ‘Lydford Leap‘ which relates how one stormy night the bridge collapsed and a traveller unknowingly leapt his horse across the yawning gap of the chasm. This tale and the bridge became so synonymous with the village of Lydford that what is now called the Castle Inn was once named the White Horse in recognition of the traveller’s horse which made the ‘Leap’. Virtually every topographical writer that has visited the bridge had recounted this famous tale with vary degrees of drama.
But there are other more tragic events that have taken place at Lydford Bridge, on oft quoted story is that of a Captain Williams who lived near Exeter. Fortune dictated that he was of great expectations and in anticipation of his inheritance the gentleman led a life of wine, women and song. As is often the case, all three saw him gradually fall into unrecoverable debt and situations where he could no longer maintain his reputation. Consequently, on dark night he rode out to Lydford Bridge and in attempt of self-destruction spurred his horse towards the parapet of the bridge. Fortunately the horse had a greater regard to self preservation and refused to jump into the deep chasm below. Not to be confounded the poor wretch unsaddled the horse and threw that over in the hope that once found people would think the whole event an accident. Having done this he then pitched himself over the parapet in the wake of his saddle. Unfortunately the saddle became tangled in some branches on the way down and he didn’t, it was only his body that made it to the bottom. A few days later the saddle was found hanging halfway down the cleft and the broken body of the young man was found below but it seems his attempt to disguise his suicide failed, hence the tale, (Williams, 1804, pp. 82 -83, Bray, 1838, p.350).
Lydford Bridge and Chasm – Dartmoor
Come to the bridge,
From where thou stand’st, the shuddering moor-men tell
Of many weary of life, who, wild with pain
Have leap’d into the desperate arms of Death ;
Look down into their refuge – is it peace ?
Now list the roar ! Swift through the wonderous cleft
The torrent raves, invisible to men ;
Yet mark again – not all ! lo, far below,
In the last depth of the profound abyss,
A spectral pool, like the stern heart at rest
‘Mid throbbing hosts, dark, dread, as some unblest
Memory of youth, deep-sunken in the past,
Wherein, down-gazing with remorseless eyes,
We catch faint reflex of our present selves,
Ghostly and pale ! Thou see’st no more; the boughs
Of sombre trees, rooted in walls of crag,
Close o’er the foam, as o’er some terrible scene
Of violent passion wed with ruthless power,
The shadow of night; but thou can’st hear
The onward rush of waters, and the gusts,
Lorn as the vain, complaints of wandering shades,
Moaning among the umbrage sere and sad…
D. R. ? 1857
Obviously that poet was having a bad day when he composed the above, there is another verse about the actual gorge but that is as sombre, all in all enough to make anyone want to jump off the bridge. But again it’s a good example of how sinister people regard the bridge.
Carrington, (1828, p.193), comments on another suicide carried out by a man from a nameless neighbouring village. Apparently the poor man was suffering from temporary fits of insanity brought on by, ‘brainfever’, (other authors were less sensitive and just described him as a ‘lunatic’) which necessitated him being confined and under 24 hour supervision. One stormy night when his attendants weren’t looking he jumped naked out of his window and ran off to Lydford Bridge where he leapt of the parapet with a scream and plunged into the dark chasm below.
There is another tale about a lone rider who was spotted riding upon the nearby moors at Lydford, as nightfall began to wrap its dusky shroud around Lydford the same rider appeared at the village inn. He remained on his horse and ordered a glass of ale which he drank whilst still mounted on his horse. Having finished his ale the rider than galloped off into the night towards Lydford Bridge. The next morning his horse was found stood outside the inn door but its rider was nowhere to be seen, so an immediate search of the area began. In a nearby field the searchers found a hat inside which was a watch, a further search under the bridge revealed the mangled remains of the missing rider, (Lady, 1857, pp. 28 -29). The same author composed a poem about the tragic event entitled – Lydford Bridge or The Maniac’s Leap. In a similar light, the famous poet N. T. Carrington also found inspiration for verse in the tragic suicides of Lydford Bridge in his work entitled – Lydford Bridge.
Having looked at the fable associated with Lydford Bridge, what are the facts? The earliest mention of the bridge was made by William of Worcester in 1448 when he described it as: ‘Pons profundissimus tocius Angliae sub ponte et strictus‘, and if any Latin scholar can translate that for me I would be deeply grateful. Judging by the comments made by Risdon whereby he described it a being, ‘amongst the wonders of the kingdom’, must have been considered at the time as a feat of engineering. In 1666 the bridge was reported as being in decay which for the time was about the same condition as many of the roads, (Henderson & Jervoise, 1938, p.13). Writing in 18, Pococke gives the following structural details: ‘the single arch of which I guessed might be about 10 feet wide where it makes a semicircle built on the rock, but stretching out two or three feet farther to the south. It is over the river Lyd, which I suppose is 100 feet below it..’, (Pococke, 1888, p.137). Sometime in the early 1900s the bridge was widened to the modern width of about 22 feet and by the very existence of a nearby ‘C’ Stone must have been under the care of the county for some time. Today the old bridge still stands, carrying the modern day traffic over the gaping chasm below, occasionally the odd vehicle will decide to test its durability by bumping into it but that only results in a costly repair bill from the body shop. But seriously, if ever you are passing over the bridge take a few minutes to stop and have a look over, just make sure you are a happy bunny before doing so, it’s a long way down.
Bray, E. 1838. Traditions, Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire…, London: John Murray.
Carrington, H. E. 1828. Plymouth and Devonport Guide, London: Longman and Co.
Gilpin, W. 1808. Observations on the Western Parts of England, London: Cadell & Davies.
Henderson, C & Jervoise, E. 1938. Old Devon Bridges, Exeter: A. Wheaton & Co.
Lady, A. 1857. Dartmoor Legends and Other Poems, Exeter: William Roberts.
Pococke, R. 1888. Travels Through England, London: Nicholls & Son.
Risdon, T. 1970. Survey of the County of Devon, Barnstaple: Porcupines.
Williams, T. H. 1804. Picturesque Excursions in Devon and Cornwall, London: J. Murray