Imagine that you were a peasant in Europe, during the early Middle Ages. How far away do you think you might travel from your home during your lifetime? The answer is no more than about two or three miles, on average. The feudal system meant that the Lord of the Manor controlled every aspect of your life (plus the fact that EVERYONE knew that there were fire-breathing dragons over the next hill!) Travel was a rare, and a terrifying experience for those who worked on the land (and almost all did just that). As society developed, travel became more common, but the ‘common man’ who might be making a pilgrimage (or doing his Lord’s business) still felt the need to pray before starting out, as well as give thanks for having completed a hazardous journey as they entered a town. Bridges were important access points to many towns, as most Mediaeval towns were located on either lakes or rivers, which were used as refuse dumps, water sources, and transportation ‘highways’. Consequently, bridge chapels proliferated throughout Europe, most of them being incorporated into the structure of the bridge they served. Masses were said for the hopeful traveller, and the thankful – arriving – one, as well as prayers being offered for those who had ventured forth and had not returned (which must have cheered the ones setting out, no end!). My home city of Derby still has St. Mary’s chapel, located on a bridge over the River Derwent in the old centre of town, which is one of only six survivors in Great Britain.
The County of Durham was a ‘County Palatine’ with the Bishops of Durham exercising temporal as well as spiritual authority direct from the sovereign. As such they held courts, levied taxes, and were refered to as Prince Bishops; indeed County Durham is still called ‘The Land of the Prince Bishops’. Hugh de Puiset (1125 – 1195) was a very active Bishop of Durham; as well as commissioning a Galilee chapel in Durham Cathedral, he caused the Elvet Bridge across the River Wear to be built, linking the city of Durham with an area known in Old English as Aelfet Ee, or Swan’s Island. Over the years, this has been transmuted to Elvet. The bridge is a splendid stone structure of 10 arches (six of them are ‘dry’, that is, over land), and has a noticeable slope up towards the city from the Elvet end. Not one, but two bridge chapels were constructed; one dedicated to St. Andrew on the Elvet side, and one dedicated to St. John on the city side.
Here you can see some of the Elvet Bridge and admire the graceful form of the arches. English Heritage has assessed the bridge as a ‘Grade 1′ Listed Building (Building No. 110188), and Listed Status was achieved on 30 April, 1971. By the end of the Middle Ages, travel had become more commonplace, and bridge chapels were either demolished or re-purposed. Some chapels survived because they were part of the bridge structure. If you look across the river you can see that a fairly modern brick addition has been built out at an angle over the Wear, but there are also substantial remains of the original chapel, including the foundation and the lower section. On the other bank, the lower portion of St John’s was turned into a ‘House of Correction’. The former St. Andrew’s is now an Italian bistro, ‘Melanzana’, offering some delightful specialties. Make sure to check the ceilings as well as the menu, though, as you will find some lovely old oak beams.
The Wear glides smoothly through the narrow arches of the Elvet Bridge. Whether you feel like hiring a skiff to row up and down the river, or just sit and gently watch the world go by, this is a lovely spot.