Packhorse bridges are not uncommon and there are many throughout the British Isles. But they remain a pleasure to discover, since they are often hidden away off the beaten path, away from the modern arterial spread of trunk road and suburban roadways. They are to be found in low lying areas, spanning rivers and streams in spots forgotten by all but those that live local to them. They often exist in some endless battle against the overgrowth of reed and willow, the masonry walls, parapets and arches colonised by weeds and tree saplings. They were built to be simply useful, and those that have survived have done so because they remain useful. The packhorse bridge at Caergwrle, well over 300 years old at best estimate, is a case in point. It still links the villages of Caergwrle and Hope and is used as such, though the trains of mules carrying panniers of goods have long since disappeared.
It was once the case, before the turnpike trusts began to improve the roads, before canals and barges and centuries before the steam train changed the face of the nation entirely, that moving goods was done slowly and deliberately, by packhorse trains. They snaked their way through the land, linking towns and villages together. The routes can still be found if one looks closely enough. They are often those minor, overgrown roads that seem to have no other purpose than to link one pretty little dot on a map to another.
Goods were carried on panniers, sometimes baskets, sometimes special harnesses and saddles, depending on the commodities being moved, always on the backs of mules or horses. These panniers hung so low on the flanks of the animals that the parapets of packhorse bridges were built low to accommodate their size, and remain an identifying feature of those that remain. The trains of packhorses were often huge, sometimes thirty beasts at times and led by small teams of men and boys. The bridges were invariably single track, and pedestrians were usually warned of a packhorse train approaching by bells attached to the harnesses of the lead horse. George Lloyd, whose 1957 article remains the basis for a study of the Caergwrle bridge, rather wonderfully describes the lead horse as invariably, ‘sagacious’, in confidently, competently leading the train. He describes how the lead horse would carry ‘one large bell suspended from the middle of a leather strap collar and three small spherical bells on each side’. However, those pedestrians already on the bridge would be given sanctuary in the v-shaped recesses opened out from the parapet walls - a common sight on bridges with a past.
There are no extant documents relating to the building of the bridge, but it was more than likely built in the mid to later 17th century, at the instigation of Squire Ellis Yonge of Bryn Iorcyn. It is almost certain that the packhorse bridge we see today is a stone replacement of many earlier timber bridges built in almost the exact same place. Along with the bridge at pont-y-delyn on Fagl Lane and the ford off Sarn Lane, the packhorse bridge would have been an essential route linking the villages of Caergwrle and Hope, and the roads onwards.
The Packhorse bridge from the Caergwrle side
To look at, the packhorse bridge at Caergwrle on Fellows Lane is a wholly impressive example. It is strikingly long, a little under 60 metres in length and single track, of course. With its great length and seven arches, it seems a little extravagant, especially when crossed in the calm, but there is sound thinking behind its structure. The bridge spans both the Alyn and a temporary off-shoot of the river (which rejoins its parent a little further downstream), and when in flood, the waters here can be torrential and damaging.
If not maintained, the detritus of the river regularly cleaned out, the Alyn in flood here can be catastrophic. In November of 2000, torrential rain caused immense flooding in the area. Despite repeated warnings that the amount of overgrowth and silting of the bridge would cause disaster, little was done, and as the water levels rose inexorably, it was only a matter of time before a tragedy occurred. The arches of the packhorse bridge could not cope with the torrent, the arches blocked by silt, branches and fallen trees. The bridge was overwhelmed, the waters spreading across the flood plain and into the homes of nearby residents. It was not until the bridge gave way that homes were given respite from the waters, but of course the bridge had suffered grievous damage.
As the River Alyn flows beneath the bridge, it is clear the challenge is to keep the bridge free of the encroachment of nature
It is a constant source of wonder that we often wait until disaster strikes before making any effort to maintain and nurture our cultural history. But this sad state of affairs is not exclusively the domain of our historical past. In any case, restoration work took place in the following year and returned the bridge to something of its glory. In fact, the communities of Caergwrle and Hope have been admirably proactive in ensuring that the bridge remains in a sound state of repair. When knuckle dragging vandals broke off a couple of coping stones and ‘hilariously’ threw them into the river in 2015, Flintshire County Council and the Welsh Government, if you please, rode to the rescue and much work was done, not only repairing the work of the cretinous, but removing tons of silt and overgrowth.
Today, Caergwrle’s beautiful packhorse bridge remains, a reminder of a time when transport and travel was a rather more sedative affair.