The waterways heritage spotter: Split bridges

Trent & Mersey - Wheelock

Trent & Mersey - Wheelock - Credit: Martin Ludgate

Our heritage spotter Martin Ludgate has been tracking down the bridges which were designed to make horse-boating easier

Stratford Canal - near Wilmcote

Stratford Canal - near Wilmcote - Credit: Martin Ludgate

As a six-year-old or thereabouts, I found the lock tail bridges on the Trent & Mersey Canal in Middlewich a little terrifying. This was the 1960s, and my family would be breaking our car journey to visit relatives in Chester by stopping for fish and chips from a nearby chip shop (invariably served in a copy of the Middlewich Guardian) – which depending on the weather would be eaten either in the car in a nearby street or sitting by the canal, watching any boats passing through the locks.

So what was so scary about the bridges? Well, partly it was that they consisted simply of narrow, flat wooden decks with no handrails at all to protect you from falling some distance (these are deep locks) into the water. But far worse than that (to a small child) was that they didn’t even reach all the way across! Each ‘bridge’ wasn’t actually a span at all, but two halves (each supported by a pair of rather spindly looking wrought iron brackets), almost but not quite meeting in the middle, leaving a gap. No, it wasn’t anything like wide enough for even a very young future waterways journalist to fall down – there was barely an inch of space – but it frightened me.

Either my father or my elder brother explained to me the reason for this gap. It meant that the old horse-drawn boats (or latterly the unpowered ‘butty’ narrowboat, which had been unhitched from the ‘motor’ that was towing it, and which was being manhandled through the locks) could be hauled in and out of the locks more easily by passing the rope through the gap in the bridge, saving the time and bother of somehow passing the rope under the bridge.

And what should turn up but one of the last pairs of regular working boats on the canal, heading downhill with a load of coal from a pit in the Potteries area.

Sure enough, first the motor was worked through the lock under its own power, then the butty followed, hauled on a rope. As the bottom gates opened, I waited with bated breath for the boatman to use the slot in the tail bridge to pass the rope through, as I’d been told.


Stourbridge - Credit: Martin Ludgate

He didn’t. A swift flick of the arm and the end of the rope swung under the bridge and reappeared on the other side, where he trapped it with his foot, picked it up, and nonchalantly carried on. I guess either he knew the gap was tight (sometimes they tended to close up), or he was just so used to bridges without splits that he didn’t bother with it.

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And that, incidentally, is my single solitary clear memory of the working narrowboat era on our canals.

Split bridges were something of a Trent & Mersey feature – particularly the western end of it, on the Cheshire Locks (sometimes known as ‘Heartbreak Hill’) – and you can still spot them there today. Although some have been replaced with a modern deck with no split, a number are still in their original split form. They’ve also had handrails added (also usually with a gap in them), so I don’t find them quite so terrifying these days!

Another waterway that’s well-known for its split bridges is the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. But here they aren’t just used for lock-tail bridges - they’re also a common form of ‘accommodation’ bridge – a farm crossing built to ‘accommodate’ landowners whose property the canal cut through. Designed to carry local farm traffic rather than just boat crew operating locks, they’re altogether more substantial affairs, slightly raised in the centre, fitted with metal railings /parapets, and anchored in masonry abutments (or in the case of lock bridges, anchored in the tail walls of the lock).

They’re a particular feature of the southern part of the canal from Lapworth to Stratford – but aren’t entirely limited to this length. Coming south you’ll meet your first one at the top of the main run of locks in the Lapworth flight – it’s a rare example of a slightly skew one with the split at a slight angle to the canal, presumably to help align it with the bend in the canal just beyond it.

An aside: another unusual feature of this bridge is a pulley mounted on one of the railings: these sometimes provided a way of gaining mechanical advantage (like using pulley blocks) to help a horse to get a heavily loaded boat started from the lock – and we hope to cover them in a future ‘heritage spotter’ article.

Split bridges become more common heading south towards Stratford, with more examples further down the Lapworth lower locks, beyond the junction with the connecting arm to the Grand Union Canal – and providing farm crossings on the level stretches of canal beyond. The southern part of the canal was last to be built: it would have made sense for the company to opt for a cheaper solution for farm crossings than a conventional masonry bridge with a towpath under it, once it found that completion of the canal was proving more expensive than had been predicted.

Like the Trent & Mersey bridges, some of the Stratford ones have closed up, but there are plenty where you can still see clear air through the gap.

These are probably the two best canals for spotting split bridges - but there are examples elsewhere, including the Birmingham Canal Navigations. Spon Lane Locks feature an example similar to those on the Trent & Mersey, while at Tipton Factory Locks on the New Main Line is an unusual example where the ‘split’ isn’t in the middle, it’s at one side: the lock tail bridge reaches right across from one side to the other - where it stops in mid air with a small gap between bridge and lockside. Still in the Black Country, there are examples on the Stourbridge Canal’s Sixteen Locks flight, whie not far away the Staffs & Worcs has some examples.

I’m sure you can find more elsewhere. Look out for them on your travels in the future – and try not to be scared!