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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 17

Ten thousand men fought a bloody battle on this spot on the 22nd February 1643 in the English Civil War. Eight thousand Parliamentarian soldiers mustered in Kingsbridge to take the bridge at Aveton Gifford from two thousand Royalist soldiers who defended it. The rector of Aveton Gifford helped to defend the bridge, trying to prevent Cromwell's army crossing. He manned a cannon on Pit Tans Hill, but the attempt failed, he escaped, and was hidden in one of his former parish churches. A hand to hand battle was fought over three days as the Parliamentarian force pushed the Royalists back field by field to Modbury, four miles away. This was the second Battle of Modbury. I cover this in more detail in my Modbury series here.

This has been a bit of an epic journey on quite a short river. On TV they would have made fewer episodes for the Amazon river, but then there has been so much history crammed in to the banks of this littlest Avon in England, that the series just grew beyond all of my expectations.

I would like to ask your indulgence at this point so that I may dedicate this piece to my friend Amanda. Amanda has been one of my most ardent supporters in my photo blog endeavours over the last three years, always offering encouraging words, and about to start a new life in nearby Cornwall. She has promised to continue reading my blog in our neighbouring county not too far away, and I wish her every happiness there, it is a beautiful part of the country.

Here we are now at the Aveton Gifford bridge, the longest one you can walk along that crosses the Avon. I am not counting the A38 flyover at South Brent which is longer but not really that accessible unless you are on four wheels and doing 70Mph. At this point you can actually smell the sea, because it arrives here twice a day, this is the tidal road to Bigbury but that will be in the next episode. To our left here is the historic Aveton Gifford Bridge.

Technically, although we all think of it as one bridge it is more accurately two bridges joined by a causeway on an island in the middle. I am on the north side and I am going to risk my life for my art and walk over it. Straight ahead is the shorter bridge section and this land is both dry and wet depending on the vagaries of the moon and sun and the rotation of the earth. Today, which was August 2022, the sea is flooding the road but not this marshy bank where the boats are high and dry.

On the left is the island on which some brave souls live and run businesses.

The bridge is believed to have been completed in about 1440, although, with neolithic remains found locally and with at least three ancient manors in the area and a church dating from 1250, it is almost certain that some sort of crossing existed here for many centuries before. Geographically this is the obvious spot to cross, where the river is at its widest and shallowest. The ancient road network also converges here. The bridge was widened in the 19th century.

There were quays on the river here serving exports of local materials and trade with Plymouth, westwards down the coast. Local lime kilns would have needed coal while local quarries needed a route to market for their slate. Fishing and poaching were also major occupations. There are also traces of mills at this site.

This first double arched bridge crosses a former mill leat,

After crossing the shorter bridge a beneficent land owner has allowed a permissive footpath on their land so there is a small breach in the wall so that you can walk along the edge of the flood plain instead of on the road. Although it says "Avon Estuary Walk" like most of the river inlets around here it is actually a Ria or a flooded river valley. These were created at the end of the Ice Age, when changes in sea level and land level caused the gradual inundation of former river valleys. Most people don't realise that the Terra Firma we walk on is not that Firma in the geological timescales. Land pushed down by the weight of ice sheets is still bobbing back up thousands of years later and settling down in others. As we started to understand the movements of the continents and Plate Tectonics our solid land appeared to be more fluid than we first thought, Terra Fluens perhaps? Geology is a glacially slow business. That is an example of Geology humour.

"Permissive Footpaths" are a legal definition for a footpath that you both have the right to use, while also having no right to use it. In British law a right of way can theoretically be established in certain circumstances after a period of 20 years of unchallenged use when a path would become accepted. A "Public Footpath" is protected by law and perpetual in most cases. Many are thousands of years old. Many of our modern roads today started as public footpaths and evolved. A "Permissive Footpath" is exactly that, one where it is stated that you may use it but you will not derive any future right to use it, as a clear limit has been defined. Clear as mud. So for now, I can cross the river with permission, on land where I am less likely to get run over. Thank you, beneficent landowner.

Still on the island is West Country Stoves..........

.....and RT Farm and Industrial Buildings Ltd.

Back on the road we now cross the longer of the bridge sections. This is a six arch bridge although one of the arches is now almost completely absorbed into the embankment.

Today it forms part a major route between Kingsbridge and Plymouth the A379 and is Grade 2 listed by English Heritage, so you can use an actual piece of medieval history to get to where you are going.

At the northern end of the bridge is a modern traffic island which was built to access the new bypass for Aveton Gifford Village. To see why the village needed a bypass have a look at my previous piece showing the village. The bypass carries on in a straight line up the hill preventing major chaos in the village, but it was controversial when it was built.

Torbay Express and South Devon Echo - Saturday 07 October 1989

A £1 million village by-pass scheme will mean demolishing part an historic medieval bridge villagers did not even know they had. Work on the Aveton Gifford bypass designed to end continual snarl-ups along the village's long and narrow main street began last month. Now it has been revealed that some of the work will involve demolishing part of the old bridge over the River Avon which date back years and comes complete with its own ghost.

“Everybody knew it was an old bridge but we were surprised to find out that it was old as it is" said District Councillor Gilbert Sercombe who now plans to press for the old stonework which will have to be pulled down to be saved and incorporated in some way in the Devon County Council development project.

About 150 yards of wall between the Ebb Tide pub and the tidal road at Aveton Gifford will have to go as a new roundabout and car park is built at the southern end of the village as part of the bypass project. Mr Sercombe said that despite the historic discovery the village was still firmly behind the by-pass scheme they have been battling for for more than 40 years. He explained that the traffic congestion suffered the villagers "such an impossible situation that some sort of change has got to be accepted" He said that “as much as possible” of the demolished bridge stone "should be used in the construction of the new roundabout area”

A memorial on the nearby wall names someone called Randal and the date 1874. "Oral tradition states that this records the fate of one Randal who came out of the Kings Arms later the Ebb Tide and now The Fisherman's Rest mounted his horse and declared: "I’m going to ride this pony to hell, and promptly fell off over the wall and was killed". We will never know his ultimate destination, although it is thought that his ghost still rides by in front of the pub.

Looking east, back upstream you can see how dry it was last August after several weeks of drought. That drought is still affecting us today with a hose pipe ban, even though we just experienced the wettest July on record.

This is the view west, downstream. The clue is the mast on the boat which cannot pass the low bridge. Navigation stops here. There are no more bridges between us and the sea. There is a Little Egret on the bank doing some fishing. A Little Egret on the littlest Avon.

The little egret is a recent colonist, and is most common along the south and east coasts of England and in Wales. The estuaries of Devon and Cornwall, Poole Harbour and Chichester Harbour hold some of the largest concentrations and they are also common in East Anglia.

Over the bridge and we rejoin the permissive path again.

Here another small stream joins in the watery competition of fresh water, salt water and marsh.

These buttresses hold the raised road up above any flooding, creating the causeway.

Torbay Express and South Devon Echo - Saturday 28 October 1995

DANGEROUS - Gas bottles could be washed up on South Devon beaches police warned today after a lorry crashed through a bridge parapet into a South Hams river. Ten gas cylinders washed away by the river are still missing and could be thrown up onto nearby beaches. The public is being warned to stay clear of the cylinders which could be dangerous if they have been damaged. The 10-tonne lorry plunged 15ft into the River Avon after smashing into a bridge parapet on the A379 at Aveton Gifford. The driver escaped injury but the lorry landed on its side in the river. Part of its cargo of 100 gas bottles was thrown into the river . Traffic lights have been set up on the bridge today and one lane is closed while workmen repair the stone parapet

Do not ignore this sign, it could save your life.

Western Times - Friday 29 September 1865

Piscatorial.— A fine specimen of the sturgeon, measuring seven feet in length, and weighing one cwt., (112 pounds or 50 Kg) was taken in the river Avon on Thursday. The fish had come up the river close to Aveton Gifford Bridge, and the tide ebbing fast at the time it carried it on the sand, and so was caught. These fish are very scarce in England and therefore seldom taken. Their flesh is highly prized, particularly by royalty, hence its being dubbed " the royal fish." It more resembles meat both in texture and flavour than any other fish, and when freed from fat and oil yields the purest gelatine in the animal kingdom.

On the south bank of the river is the Nature Reserve of South Efford Marsh.

South Efford Marsh is one of the South Hams’ premier birdwatching sites, where a tidal sluice gate is creating new saltmarsh habitat. Redshank and curlew are regulars, while exotic visitors include spoonbill and glossy ibis. After a there-and-back walk over the River Avon to visit the reserves' bird hide, enjoy four miles of the valley’s fine views, woodlands, undulating bridleways and meandering streams.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Wednesday 23 November 1887

STRAYING CATTLE. James Adams, farmer, Stadbury; Aveton Gifford, sued W. H. B. Ash, farmer, Ringmore, for £2 12s 6d, being the amount of damage done to plaintiff's barley on the 26th July last by defendant's five horses.—Mr. Beer appeared for the plaintiff, and Mr. W. Davies for the defendant.—The evidence showed that the defendant had purchased the grass on a place called South Efford Marsh, and put his horses there to eat the crop. The fences being out of repair, the defendant's horses were found in the plaintiff's barley field, doing damage to the extent of £2 2s, which, with 10s 6d for the surveyor's fee, made up the amount claimed.—For the defendant it was urged that he was not the actual tenant, but only the purchaser of the grass, and that he was not therefore responsible for the the fences.—The Judge said the evidence of neglect on the part of the defendant was very vague, and he would therefore be nonsuited. (Nonsuited - The case was dismissed)

Brixham Western Guardian - Thursday 27 February 1902

TRAP ACCIDENT NEAR MODBURY. Mr. T. Edgcumbe, of Modbury, after attending the meetings of the Kingsbridge Guardians and Rural Council on Saturday was returning from Kingsbridge in a pony trap. He was accompanied by his youngest daughter, and while passing over the bridge at Aveton Gifford, the animal shied, throwing Mr. Edgcumbe on to the road. The pony turned around, but Mr. Edgcumbe still held the reins and tried to stop it from running away, his daughter being still in the conveyance. However, he was dragged some distance along the road until he was obliged to let go the reins. The pony then galloped towards Aveton Gifford Hill, but when at the bottom, it turned sharp to the right and passed Efford House, to the bottom of Efford Hill, where it suddenly stopped. Miss Edgcumbe thereupon jumped out unhurt, but rather frightened. Both shafts of the trap were broken, but the pony was not injured. Mr. Edgcumbe was much shaken and bruised, but not seriously.

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