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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 5

The Bridges in "Made of Stone" County.

Sorry, I couldn't resist that cheesy play on words, based on a famous book title of course, The Bridges of Madison County, and the "Made of stone" county being Devon, where everything does seem to be made from stone, mostly carried from nearby quarries on Dartmoor. In this post, however we also have bridges carved from Maple as well as the two road bridges made out of granite.

Here are the two bridges of stone, only a hundred yards apart. Each offers a view of the other. They are both south of South Brent at Brent Mill. The oldest is old Brent Mill Bridge which dates at least from the 17th century and was a packhorse bridge and originally narrower than it is today. It was later widened on the northern side but even then was a notorious accident blackspot with it's "S bend" approach, narrow width and low parapet walls.

I have found a very detailed online document with many news accounts of events that took place over several decades with much complaint from the local populace. This was the main road between London and Plymouth.

It is Grade 2 listed by English Heritage and described as having, parapets with chamfered granite coping. One later cutwater on both upstream and downstream sides with refuges in the parapet above.

The hazardous little bridge at Brent Mill was, believe it or not, part of the main

thoroughfare linking London to Plymouth. The local press is peppered with reports of accidents at Brent Mill Bridge.

Totnes Weekly Times tells us that in August 1891 “Mr John Codd, butcher, met with a rather serious accident on Wednesday [19th] whilst driving his horse and trap across Brent Mill Bridge. The road is not level, and as the vehicle showed signs of tipping Mr Codd endeavoured to prevent an upset, but fell out the trap, and received severe cuts about the

head and face. He was removed to a wayside cottage where he received medical attention.”

In June 1894, Mr Philips “who had attended a property sale at South Brent, and was returning in a pony trap with his wife and child” and fell foul of the cursed “S” bend when “in turning near Brent Mill bridge the vehicle upset, throwing the occupants into the road.” The unfortunate Mr Philips was knocked out and remained unconscious for some time.

At this same time, Brent Mill bridge hit the news for being scourged with salmon poachers.

“James Smith, a labourer of Brent, was charged by Water Bailiff Mr. Fishwick (The perfect name for a Water Bailiff) with having a spear and gaff in his possession for killing salmon at Brent on 6th instant… The same defendant, with Francis Rowland and James Trudgeon, were also charged by Fishwick with assaulting him on the 6th inst. at Ugborough… During this struggle with Trudgeon he kicked Fishwick twice in the back. Eventually they were handcuffed and taken to Totnes and locked up. On searching Smith, the bailiff found two dynamite cartridges and a small piece of fuse…” (Western Morning News 14th February 1893)

In May 1905, Western Times reported the bridge’s first motorcar accident

(which was into a herd of cattle):

“Between four and five o’clock last evening a motor-car, No. P475, belonging to Mr. J. O. Hunt of Addlestone, Surrey, and conveying three gentlemen to Noss Mayo Friar, Plymouth, had a narrow escape from a terrible smash over Brent Mill Bridge into the River Avon. The road approaching the bridge has a nasty curve or two, and a down gradient. The car came around the corner rather fast, and met with a drove of cows belonging to Mr. W. J. Goodman, at the adjoining farm, with which it collided. One of the cows was injured, and the man in charge of them, Jervis Lang, narrowly escaped. The car, in trying to avert a collision, smashed against the thick parapet wall, and dislodged the structure underneath the coping stones. Fortunately these were strongly bound together with iron cramps, so that it restricted the stock. The car was much damaged.”

(Western Times 10th May 1905)

As a result of all the chaos and carnage the villagers eventually got their New Brent Mill Bridge, less than a hundred yards downstream.

At 3PM on Monday 10th October 1927 local people flocked to see the opening of the new bridge. Its low-stone balustrade is dwarfed on each side by crowding trees which conceal the little river so well that many present-day villagers are unaware that the bridge exists at all, despite driving to and fro across it every day.


Opening of a New Bridge Over the Avon at Brent … After many representations the County Council have at last removed the danger by building an additional bridge, with an open vision, some yards further down the river. The work commenced a year ago last February is now completed. The new bridge is a real art of workmanship as well as in design. One large span covers the river and there is a smaller span on each side, one of which provides a roadway by the riverside, and the other is spare in case of flood or other emergency. The

whole of the double bend is now abolished.

Just over the bridge at Brent Mill, I found via an exploration of Google Maps and a happy accident, a very unlikely cottage industry. Dartmoor Violins. This means I can very conveniently move from one sort of bridge to another in only a few paces.

Who would expect to find a one man violin repair business just at the edge of Dartmoor? Kevin Basle, originally from France, who first trained as a guitar maker in Newark and subsequently as a violin maker, moved down from the Midlands about a year ago to set up shop here in Devon. That is where I met him in his workshop, literally a stone's throw from the Avon river.

Kevin's main work involves repairing violins. The basic structure of the violin is very long lasting if properly made in the traditional way, but like all things with moving parts, they do need regular maintenance and there are some minor parts that are regularly replaced.

"My main customers are shops (from the whole of the UK), auction houses mainly London and local musicians. I recently started to work more with local music schools in order to support them using my skills"

Before I met him, Kevin had just passed his milestone 200th violin repair since starting his own business.

Violins are traditionally made with spruce wood for the front of the instrument and maple for the back. There are particular reasons why these woods are used and they relate to the density and strength of each type of wood. The spruce used for the front of the violin is critical for the sound quality and it is cut very thin, however spruce is not strong enough to form the whole instrument because the strains from the stretched strings are so great that it would collapse. Maple is used for both structural and aesthetic reasons, as it is both very strong and cut in the right way very beautiful. The type of maple used is called Flame Maple and as you can see that means it has a striped grain that when polished and varnished gives the appearance of flames. In fact if it is moved in light there is an additional three dimensional depth to the appearance of the grain that mimics a flame like movement.

In this example the maple has also been cut in a book end style with a join down the middle and a mirrored grain pattern. This is more difficult to do and is a sign of quality.

Spot the odd one out below, and I am sorry there are no prizes. As I said earlier Kevin trained as a guitar maker too and this is one of his earliest pieces a concert size Ukelele, looking to the untrained eye (mine) like a small guitar. This was made while Kevin was still a student, and a friend of his applied the screen printed design.

The word Ukelele is Hawaiian in origin. Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on several small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin, the machete, cavaquinho, timple, and rajão, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde.

One of the most important factors in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was the ardent support and promotion of the instrument by King Kalākaua. A patron of the arts, he incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings. In the Hawaiian language the word ukulele roughly translates as "jumping flea", perhaps because of the movement of the player's fingers.

British singer and comedian George Formby was a ukulele player, though he often played a banjolele, a hybrid instrument consisting of an extended ukulele neck with a banjo resonator body.

George Formby was a Music Hall celebrity of his day singing classic risqué songs that "suggested" a lot more than they "delivered." The BBC famously banned his song "When I'm Cleaning Windows" because of lyrics like this.....

Now lots of girls I've had to jilt,

For they admire the way I'm built,

It's a good job I don't wear a kilt,

When I'm cleaning windows!"

But I digress, as I often do. Back to the serious business of violins. This example below in an unfinished state, ended up on the back burner when Kevin moved house a year ago, but it was fortunate for me to be able to see an unfinished piece and I have to say even in this state it is a very photogenic object. The spiral top of the instrument is called the scroll.

Here you can see that the violins arrive in the workshop in all states of repair or disrepair. The fingerboard, the black part of the violin, is typically made of ebony, but often some other wood, stained or painted black on cheaper instruments. Ebony is the preferred material because of its hardness, beauty, and superior resistance to wear. Fingerboards are dressed to a particular transverse curve, and have a small lengthwise "scoop," or concavity, slightly more pronounced on the lower strings, especially when meant for gut or synthetic strings.

A violin is usually played using a bow consisting of a stick with a ribbon of horsehair strung between the tip and frog (or nut, or heel) at opposite ends. A typical violin bow may be 75 cm (30 in) overall, and weigh about 60 g (2.1 oz). Bow hair traditionally comes from the tail of a grey male horse (which has predominantly white hair).

Kevin explained.... "it is exclusively from the tail of Mongolian horses. Very specific but it is the best for the intended purpose."

If IKEA were to sell violins, this is probably how they would arrive, flat pack, although I don't hold out much hope for anyone managing to get an instrument made out of these pieces, unless you were as skilled as Kevin.

Kevin uses no power tools, in fact he moved on from the idea of furniture making into the making of violins precisely because he didn't want to use power tools. For him the appeal of working with wood is in the actual handling and shaping of the wood himself into something that takes on a life of it's own.

In case you were wondering about the opening paragraph of this post, here are the bridges of wood. These old bridges, as they are called, are cut from maple wood and are probably the commonest repair to a violin. They are quite delicate and take much of the wear during the playing of the instrument as they support the four tensioned strings. The names stamped on the different bridges reflect the maker that replaced them.

The bridge is a precisely cut piece of maple that forms the lower anchor point of the vibrating length of the strings and transmits the vibration of the strings to the body of the instrument. Its top curve holds the strings at the proper height from the fingerboard in an arc, allowing each to be sounded separately by the bow.

This image below probably represents the two extremes of the possible, when it comes to making a violin.

"This electric violin has been created by me and a big silicon valley company called Autodesk (Autocad inventor), the violin has been designed by AI (Artificial Intelligence) and has been machined out of a single block of wood and finished by hand."

Electric violins have a magnetic or piezoelectric pickup that converts string vibration to an electric signal. A patch cable or wireless transmitter sends the signal to an amplifier of a PA system. Electric violins are usually constructed as such, but a pickup can be added to a conventional acoustic violin. An electric violin with a resonating body that produces listening-level sound independently of the electric elements can be called an electro-acoustic violin.

This is a Mandolin and I was lucky to see it, as it only came in for repair the day before I arrived. It belongs to the mother of an existing customer and was bought by her as new in the 1920's, it is now considered a family heirloom and so has been delivered for some tender loving care. It has obviously played many a tune and I bet it could tell some tales.

A mandolin (Italian: mandolino literally "small mandola") is a stringed musical instrument in the lute family and is generally plucked with a pick. It most commonly has four courses of doubled metal strings tuned in unison, thus giving a total of 8 strings.

The traditional word for a violin maker is a Luthier, the word "luthier" is originally French and comes from the French word for lute.

The craft of luthiers, lutherie, is commonly divided into the two main categories of makers of stringed instruments that are plucked or strummed and makers of stringed instruments that are bowed. Since bowed instruments require a bow, the second category includes a subtype known as a bow maker or archetier.

Open wide, and say aaaaahh! because this dentistry like tool is called a soundpost setter and it is used to move the soundpost inside the violin which is a piece of wooden dowel connecting the front (or belly) to the back of the instrument. The violin won't need an anaesthetic though as it is totally painless.

The sound post, or soul post, fits precisely inside the instrument between the back and top, at a carefully chosen spot near the treble foot of the bridge, which it helps support. It also influences the modes of vibration of the top and the back of the instrument. Adjustment of the sound post, can to the trained ear completely transform the quality of sound coming from an individual instrument.

The majority of glued joints in the instrument use animal hide glue rather than common white glue for a number of reasons. Hide glue is capable of making a thinner joint than most other glues. It is reversible (brittle enough to crack with carefully applied force and removable with hot water) when disassembly is needed. Weaker, diluted glue is usually used to fasten the top to the ribs, and the nut to the fingerboard, since common repairs involve removing these parts.

Every violin carries with it the scars of age and experience and each one is unique. Each has its own story, if only it could speak.

Violinists and collectors particularly prize the fine historical instruments made by the Stradivari, Guarneri, Guadagnini and Amati families from the 16th to the 18th century in Brescia and Cremona (Italy) and by Jacob Stainer in Austria. According to their reputation, the quality of their sound has defied attempts to explain or equal it.

I give the final words on the subject to Kevin. “No luthier can truly say they have no room for improvement. That’s exactly what makes this job so interesting; there is always something new to learn”

On leaving Kevin's workshop he suggested I have another look at the view from the old bridge nearby as it is particularly attractive in autumn. So I am ending with some photos that contrast with those at the beginning of the post, which were taken in July.

Bridge history from The story behind South Brent’s forgotten “new” bridge . The information on violins is from Kevin's website and from Wikipedia.


Unknown member
Nov 12, 2022

Super post!!! Love the photos of the violins and love the detailed commentary about the production of these fine instruments; really eye opening. To be honest I didn't think there were people still making violins by hand. Thoroughly enjoyed this post.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Nov 13, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Camellia.


John Durham
John Durham
Nov 10, 2022

Loved your photos of the stone bridges and of the wooden ones, as well. One of my good friends when I lived in Charlotte, NC was a bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and a luthier, primarily working on mandolins. As a wood butcher, working on the gross scale, it was fascinating to sit and watch him work on such a fine scale and then rip off a tune on a just repaired instrument. Thanks for a wonderful look a such a skilled artisan.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Nov 10, 2022
Replying to

Glad you liked it. They are things of beauty and seem to have almost a human character of their own.

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