A tale of two river banks

An alternative history of York, told through its bridges over the River Ouse


No credible history of Britain can be written without reference to the importance of the nation’s rivers, along whose arteries both people and goods have travelled and upon whose banks great settlements have flourished. Sooner or later, where those communities have prospered, the need to cross the river that sustained them has inevitably arisen. And thus bridges have become part of the warp and weft of our riverine towns and cities, intimately entwined with their development.

The city of York is no exception. Over the years its bridges – built between Roman times and the Millennium – have been swept away in catastrophic storms and collapsed under the weight of people out to cheer an archbishop back from exile. There’s been a bridge built for a wedding; a haunted bridge and a bridge that houses the very first public toilets in Yorkshire!

Although the story of bridges over the Ouse – the larger of the two waterways on which York was built – will not provide us with a comprehensive history of the city, if we care to take a stroll along the river and back in time, its bridges will furnish us with some fascinating snapshots of what was once one of England’s most important centres.

Let’s start with the Romans

There has been a settlement on the north side of the Ouse since Neolithic times, when the river acted as a natural defence to the southern and western approaches. It was only with the advent of the Romans, those inveterate builders of transport infrastructure, that the first bridge was thrown across the river. This linked Micklegate with Stonegate and helped cement Eboracum’s status as a major Roman outpost, linking it with important settlements to the west. For the first time York was, quite literally, on the map.

Its eventual replacement, Ouse Bridge, was a wooden affair constructed about 400 yards downstream, marking a re-orientation of the city by Norse settlers who had renamed it Jorvik. As far as we know, for over a millennium it was the only bridge spanning the river in the district. One stands on the same spot today, having been rebuilt at least four times over the centuries.

One such reconstruction occurred on account of an extraordinary event in 1154. Such a large crowd had congregated on the stone bridge to welcome returning hero Archbishop William to the city that it collapsed, hurling scores of well-wishers into the river. Remarkably, not a single person was drowned. This ‘Miracle on the River Ouse’ didn’t do any harm when it came to considering William for canonisation and the prelate became Saint William of York in 1227.

A chapel dedicated to him was one of the many edifices that lined the six-arched bridge built as a replacement. It was joined by a toll booth, shops, houses, and even a courthouse and prison – trappings of a thriving medieval city. Two centuries later, in 1367, York proved itself a pioneering one too, when the first public toilets in Yorkshire (and probably in England), were installed on the bridge.

Arrival of the railways

Flooding has been a perennial problem in York right up to the present day. In 1565, after a harsh winter had gripped the city in its iron maw for months, an Ouse swollen by thawing snow swept part of the bridge away. The central arch of the repaired structure spanned 81ft – a tremendous architectural feat for the time – and was declared by Daniel Defoe ‘the greatest in England’.

As the 19th century dawned, we find the bridge struggling to cope with pressures of a burgeoning population. The Corporation of York thus decided it must be replaced. It took from 1810 to 1821 to finish the New Ouse Bridge, which is still in use today. It was finally joined by a second Ouse crossing in 1845 with the building of the Scarborough Railway Bridge. The first York railway station had opened six years beforehand and when the latest incarnation was built in 1877 it became the largest in the world. This bridge is witness to the expansion of the railways, in this case pushing them eastwards to Scarborough, a seaside resort created by Victorians keen to find places away from the industrialised cities in which to breathe fresh air.

A second railway bridge – the Naburn Swing Bridge – was added in 1871 and has since been converted for use in the York & Selby cycle path. Nowadays, it also sports a modern artwork: a sculpture of an angler accompanied by a dog and bicycle.

Farewell to tall ships

The expansion of the city in the mid-19th century is represented by two road crossings: Lendal Bridge and Skeldergate Bridge. The former replaced a rope ferry used by Florence Nightingale on a visit to York in 1852. The ferryman – made redundant by the bridge – was granted £15 and a horse and cart to help him adjust to the new economy. Meanwhile, the evolution of Skeldergate Bridge illustrates another decline: that of the tall ships. It was built with an arch that opened to accommodate masted vessels, but the motorised mechanism was last used in 1975 and has since been dismantled.

An example of the enduring allure of the royal family is provided by Clifton Bridge. It was erected by the army in 1961 as a temporary structure to accommodate traffic heading to York Minster for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The current permanent crossing was built two years later. However, as motorised vehicles clogged up the city further, work on an outer ring road began in the 1970s, eventually necessitating the building of two additional bridges to the north and south of the city.

And so we arrive at the most recent of York’s nine current Ouse bridges: the Millennium Bridge, opened in 2001 for pedestrians and cyclists. With a bench along its whole length, it heralds a return to the long-abandoned idea of the bridge as a place where citizens congregate. After dark, it is illuminated by lights in ever-changing colours. The Romans, who were always keen on a bit of a show, would surely have approved.

Read more about the River Ouse and read more bridge tales on the Waterfront website, including the River Chapel on the Don and the Meccano Bridge over the Manchester & Bury Canal.

Francesco Giustozzi