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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 10

In this, the next part of the series, it's Gara Bridge crossing the Avon, while a two and a half thousand year old hill fort looks down on the valley from above. A bit of a milestone as this is my 600th blog post.

This is Gara Bridge, at another pinch point in the Avon valley where the road drops down through a forest from the ridgeway high above. It is March 2023 and the snowdrops are still in full bloom all along the valley. I am standing very close to the old track bed of the railway branch line that used to go to Kingsbridge. The track has long since been lifted and there is no access here. The old Gara Bridge station is now a private residence.

The bridge, like most of those across the Avon, is listed by English Heritage, Grade 2 in this instance. It has recently had some repairs to the parapet.

English Heritage don't seem to know for sure how old it is, as they say probably 17th century, which probably means a lot longer, or at least some sort of crossing has probably been here a lot longer. Later, we go up to the ridgeway above those woods and we'll see the defensive position defending routes across the river along this stretch. The bridge was widened in the 18th or 19th century, again, like most of the bridges along the Avon, as they were originally for pack horses and not wheeled vehicles.

This is the north side, below.

"One large single span (about 8 metres) segmental arch with double arch rings, the inner ring recessed, the outer ring chamfered on the north upstream side. The parapets appear to have been raised or rebuilt and the abutments are splayed out. The bridge was originally a very narrow packhorse bridge that has been widened on the downstream south side. The straight masonry joint is clearly visible on the intrados of the arch. (Just visible in the darkness underneath.) That the bridge was widened on the south side is indicated by the chamfered arch ring on the north side and this view is supported by Jervoise and Henderson. If this is true the original bridge was narrower than the width of the addition. The bridge would have been so narrow that it would only have been a footbridge but with a considerable span." English Heritage.

The arch on the left clearly visible in this edited photo, shows the narrowness of the original bridge.

There isn't a clear view of the south side of the bridge.

Here is the former Gara Bridge Station viewed from across the river. The cream canopy in the middle section denotes the former railway platform since enclosed. The sympathetically extended dwelling now covers the previous wide track area.

This is the old railway bridge over the Avon, still intact today. Maybe the only rail bridge left from the Kingsbridge branch line that still crosses the river. The line crossed the river ten times weaving its way back and forth, rarely making a straight line. You can see it above in the old photo. Surprisingly Gara Bridge was a sizeable station, with several tracks. The line itself was single track so this was the only passing place.

From the darkest depths of the Avon valley we now move to......

.... the bright uplands of the ridgeway. Gara Bridge and its predecessors play a part in a larger scheme of very early settlement in this area of the South Hams. Topsham Bridge also features and we will see that in the next part of the series.

For now I am focussing on Blackdown Rings, what it is, and why it is here.

At ground level, as you approach Blackdown Rings there is not a lot to see. In front of you is the entrance to what was probably the most important defensive position in this part of South Devon, during the Iron Age.

The river Avon runs north south in this area and just below in the valley are two strategic bridges on the east west land route, signifying earlier crossing points here on the Avon watched over by this fort, the aforementioned Gara Bridge and Topsham Bridge. It is also situated on the main north south land route between Dartmoor and the sea at Kingsbridge as we know it today. So this position was crucial to controlling all traffic and trade in an area stretching from Plymouth, up on to Dartmoor, around to Totnes, down the Dart to Dartmouth and then the entire coast in between.

In that gap above would have been a wooden structure built on top of the earth banks. The earth banks were set behind the ring ditches, creating a formidable defensive ring.

Here is a cross section of one of those ring ditches. Don't forget that over the centuries, time and the elements will have had the effect of lowering the banks and raising the level in the ditches as nature tries to iron the land flat, eventually erasing all trace of man's intervention in this landscape.

On the eastern side the land drops away to the valley below, so any invasion from this direction would have been doubly difficult.

Here you can get an idea of the commanding position, as 180 degree views of the coast give very early warning of any threat.

All of this land now covered in vegetation and mature trees makes it hard to imagine the labour involved in building a structure of this scale with simple hand tools and manual work.

Here you can see the directions laid out, of all the nearby points on the coast where danger lay. There are many other ancient monuments in every direction between here and the sea.

Behind us lies Dartmoor where even older monuments still remain from a time when the pyramids of Egypt were being constructed. I have added links to all of the sites I have already visited, that are mentioned on this display. Haytor, Torbay, Start Point, Bolt Head, Bigbury Bay, and Plymouth.

There are twelve known hillforts in this area of Devon. The often substantial earthwork enclosures which archaeologists call hillforts were constructed between about 600 BC and 100 BC for various purposes including settlement and farm stock management, but their primary function was defence.

A typical hillfort has one or more deep ditches with high earth banks on their inner sides, enclosing an ovoid area of from three to ten acres. They usually have one or two entrances, which were defended in a variety of ways.

In Southern England, hillforts are typically found on hilltops, spurs and occasionally valley sides or promontories. Devon and Cornwall have a larger number than usual, particularly of the smaller, simpler variety.

Hillforts developed at a time when interaction between social groups in the Celtic tribal world of Western Europe was becoming increasingly territorial and tense. Roman commentators pointed to constant low-level disagreements, and a tendency for hot-headedness among warriors of the period, which often spilled over into cattle raiding between tribal groups and occasionally full scale war.

Blackdown Rings is a single enclosure fort of the earlier Iron Age and probably dates to circa 600-400 BC. No excavations or geophysical surveys have taken place here, and the interior was regularly ploughed until a few years ago, so no clear features are visible here.

The hillfort has very sharply defined ditches, which are probably the result of cleaning out and reprofiling in the later 11th century AD, when a small Norman ringwork and bailey castle was inserted into the north-west corner. It is likely that this castle was placed here to control people travelling the east-west and north-south routes in exactly the same way as the earlier hillfort did.

This information is from Hillforts in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, by Robert Waterhouse, BA, AIFA. He is a freelance archaeologist and has lived and worked in South Devon for most of his life.

The ditch has offered shelter and protection from later ploughing so that oaks now inhabit the place.

This is one of the best views of the Avon valley and down below in amongst those trees are Gara Bridge which we have already seen and Topsham Bridge which is where the next part of the story will start.

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John Durham
John Durham
Mar 12, 2023

I generally don't enjoy wide angle vistas, but these are very good, especially when you can get the sweeping layers and moody skies, as in the last photo. I also love the old oaks, as in numbers ? & ?? (it's hard to remember, I know), so gnarly and twisting, testament to their long, hard lives. And of course, the stonework of the bridges always makes me smile.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Mar 12, 2023
Replying to

Seeing those views you can really imagine the people that built that structure, scanning the horizon for trouble every day.

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