Canal architecture is often admired for the way it unfussily solves complicated problems while seamlessly integrating with the natural landscape. This is what canal photographer Eric de Maré described as the “functional tradition of design”. It’s the idea of designing a building to do a job well, while also making sure it looks great without being flashy. It’s a phrase De Maré applied to constructions as varied as a lighthouse, a groined sea wall or a railway viaduct. Some of the best examples, he said, were to be found on the canals. A perfect example are the remarkable split bridges of the South Stratford Canal.
One of the best surviving split bridges is the Dick’s Lane Bridge – or to be more precise, Bridge 39, close to Lock 25, the third lock up in the Lapworth Flight. It’s called a split bridge because it doesn’t quite join in the middle, where there’s a gap or split. This was deliberately created so that a tow rope from a horse – most canal boats were pulled by horses until the arrival of the engine in the 20th century – could be fed through the middle of the bridge without having to unhitch the horse or construct a towpath adjacent to the bridge. This not only saved the canal company a lot of money during construction, it also saved the bargee valuable travelling time when he was using the canal to move goods. And as peaceful as it now appear, this was once a busy part of the network; Dick’s Lane Wharf was where coal was unloaded and lime and agricultural produce collected.
The bridge was essentially made from two separate cantilevered decks, one on each bank of the canal. A horse pulling a boat would usually have to go under the bridge with the boat – something that would require the construction of a wider bridge with sufficient space to accommodate a tow path – but with the split bridge, the horse could merrily continue round the outside of the bridge while the rope was fed through the central slot. These designs were generally kept for “accommodation bridges”, that is bridges that maintained a pre-existing right of way, and therefore had to be constructed at the canal builders expense. For the cash-strapped canal builders of Stratford, this was their best way round the problem.
The audacity of the solution illustrates the incredible inventiveness of the early canal builders as they negotiated complex landscape and budget constraints. De Maré wrote in The Canals Of England that canals were among the best places to see the functional tradition of design because “canals were mostly built at a time when the new engineering techniques aroused enough enthusiasm for pure structure to be acceptable without self-conscious adornment, and perhaps also because they perfectly combine an architectural programme with strict engineering discipline”. In the case of the Stratford’s split bridges it’s likely that the engineers didn’t even realise they were doing anything particularly special – they were just trying to solve a problem, as cheaply and practically as possible. Canals were fairly utilitarian enterprises – the idea of showing off didn’t really come in to it even as engineers designed spectacular aqueducts and breathtaking flights of locks.
The split bridges are not unique to the South Stratford Canal, but there’s nowhere else in the country where you can see so many fine examples in such a small area. At Dick’s Lane, you can also see the canal’s distinctive barrel-roofed lock cottages. It’s almost as if these two perfect and humble examples of the local vernacular were gathered together in architectural tribute to the unsung engineers who created the canal network we know and love today.
Plan your day out along the South Stratford Canal.