Should you find yourself near the confluence of the River Don and the Rother in the centre of Rotherham, take a short detour to the bridge on Church Street and you will be rewarded with one of the North’s most impressive curios. In the centre of the road, overlooking the coffee-coloured eddies of the river, sits the Chapel of Our Lady on the Bridge. It’s one of only a handful of bridge chantries remaining in the UK and, arguably, the most beautiful.
This tiny chapel, a single room appendage decorated with stained glass windows, dates back to the late 1400s and was built as a spiritual safeguard for travellers journeying in and out of town on the only road over the river. Back in the 15th century a weary traveller would have been heartened to see the figure of a monk with a lighted candle, sat high up in an alcove. It was an invitation to all those crossing the river to enter, say a prayer and pay their respect with a toll.
To understand the greater significance of such a ritual, it’s important to remember that long before the Romans introduced our cold, damp island to Christianity we already had a long history of paying our respects to rivers through ritual. Our pre-Roman ancestors believed in the mystical powers of sacred springs, performed their own form of baptism (or ‘rebirthing’) and gave votive offerings of coins and rags to the spirits of wells.
The Romans, too, brought their own pagan rites – preferring not to cross a river until the goddess of the water was appeased with coins, weapons and other totems. In the days before bridges, crossing a major river would have been a risky affair. It made sense to approach such a task with caution, respect and ritual. Better to appease any water spirit or creature who may be lurking, than incur its wrath.
In Bath, the Romans even created a unique water cult, merging their own goddess of wisdom Minerva with Sulis, the Celtic goddess of water. As well as bringing good fortune to those that gave her offerings, Sulis Minerva was called upon by those wishing to put curses on swindlers, shoddy tradesmen and ne’er-do-wells. Nearly two thousand years ago the residents of Bath were essentially practising their own form of voodoo.
As Christianity swept through Britain, it adopted elements of pagan worship as its own, building many of its churches near (or actually on top of) sacred wells and springs. In tapping into established rituals and superstitions, bridge chantries encouraged the practise of votive offerings, but now such payments went to the Catholic Church rather than the goddess.
Rotherham’s bridge chapel held its role for only 60 years before the Reformation led to its closure and subsequent transformation into an almshouse. By the 1680s it lay in ruin. Seventy years later the damp, cold crypt, sitting just a few feet above the Don, served as the Rotherham jail; it’s two cell doors still contain graffiti made by former jailbirds.
The chapel’s most surprising incarnation came in 1888 when a local resident, John Watson, rented it as a house for the princely sum of £5. He added a mezzanine floor and you can still see scorch marks on one of the walls from the fireplace. Its penultimate transformation came in 1901, when it was converted into a tobacconist. This proved to be too much for Rotherham’s most pious residents. A petition led to its restoration and by 1924 it had been renovated and re-consecrated. Today, the chapel hosts a weekly service, although it still enjoys extra-curricular duties: on a recent visit I found it occupied by a friendly couple from the Royal British Legion, selling poppies and second-hand DVDs.
Like Rotherham’s Bridge Chapel, our waterways are ever-evolving in the way we use them for work, habitation, leisure, fishing, exercise, ritual or quiet contemplation. So next time you feel the urge to toss a coin off a bridge, down a well or into fountain to make a wish, just remember you’re honouring a tradition that can be traced back at least two thousand years.