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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Two Bridges Not In Two Bridges

Originally published on Blogpost by Gethin Thomas on 16th December 2021

Dartmoor is confused and confusing when it comes to bridges. This set of photos features two bridges but they are not at Two Bridges.

Two Bridges is a few miles away from here and is not even a hamlet but just a name on a map that arose because a long time ago there were two bridges. Those two bridges, were needed because there were two rivers meeting there, and got replaced when someone had the brilliant idea of building a single bridge after the two rivers joined. This meant that for many years Two Bridges only had one bridge, so this must have really confused arriving travellers.

Latterly it was decided that the single bridge was not adequate for the traffic so instead of improving it or knocking it down they built a newer one next to it, leaving two bridges right next to each other crossing the same river. This really impressed travellers who were now spoilt for choice and spent hours trying to decide which one to use.

But I digress.

This post is about another two bridges. We climbed to the upper reaches of Dartmoor along some very narrow roads and some even narrower bridges. When I say we climbed, we are not fools, we were in a large petrol burning car which did the climbing. If we hadn't been, we'd still be half way to Dartmoor, in the dark and rain with very sore feet. As it is, we've been, done it, had a nice lunch and climbed back down again. I'm at home in the warm with super fast broadband writing this drivel.

One of the bridges we crossed was so narrow that it's stone walls convinced our car's radar that we were about to hit the sides, so we had to do a slow walking pace, in the petrol burning car, to be sure we didn't hit the sides.

Eventually we came to Two Bridges, with it's two bridges which are not in this post and we turned right, heading for Moretonhampstead. 3.8 miles later we were in Postbridge, which also has two bridges, which are the ones in this post.

Postbridge is about halfway between Princetown, (not to be confused with Princeton), and Moretonhampstead. Hereby lies a possible clue as to the name of Postbridge. There are only three buildings at Postbridge, a modern Dartmoor visitor's centre and a house and a pub. The fact that there is a pub indicates that this halfway point was probably a coaching stop, possibly for the Mail coach which could be where the name Postbridge came from, who knows. Wikipedia certainly doesn't.

Incidentally sometimes around here the SatNav warns there is a ferry en route to where you want to go. I once put in Princeton instead of Princetown and the SatNav suggested there would be a long sea voyage en route. Another anomaly which I love about the SatNav is her pronunciation of unusual places which are great fun and also her total disdain for long distances, so much so that she just can't be bothered.

If you are on a Motorway and going to a junction 18 miles away, she enthusiastically tells you to "Stay on this road for 18 miles." However, if you are going 218 miles she just rolls her eyes and says "Stay on this road for a long time", well frankly, although amusing, I expect more effort from her, especially on a longer journey, because when she says it, my mind starts to wander, on that long trip, and after an hour paranoia sets in, can I really trust her?

The river here is the East Dart which along with the West Dart at Two Bridges make up, a bit further along, The Dart, which gives it's name to Dartmoor. See? It's all very straightforward.

Describing Postbridge as a hamlet is a bit of a stretch of the imagination, because I am not sure three buildings and a car park a hamlet make.

Hamlet - A hamlet is a small human settlement. The word and concept of a hamlet have roots in the Anglo-Norman settlement of England, where the old French hamlet came to apply to small human settlements. In British geography, a hamlet is considered smaller than a village and distinctly without a church or other place of worship.

The only place of worship at Postbridge is the pub, but I'm not sure the old Anglo-Normans would have seen it that way even though they enjoyed the odd pint of ale.

You have probably noticed by now that this particular bridge is a bit odd, it is what you could call Stepping Stones Plus. It's known as a Clapper Bridge and was designed many centuries ago using the latest technology in foot powered river crossing. No wheel would ever have got over it, either on a cart or a Daimler Sovereign. For one thing it is very narrow and for the other it has steps up to it that are just about tackled by a packhorse on tip hoof as opposed to tip toe.

The technology of the time was easy to teach kids in school. It was basically, cut granite, make it nice and thick and heavy and then balance the bits on top of each other. The kids probably wrote on slabs of granite too, like in the Flintstones. No Risk Assessment or anything.

It is difficult to think of anything more basic than this, other than slabs of rock sitting in the water themselves, hence my description, Stepping Stones Plus. In it's day, the idea of levitating Stepping Stones was probably so revolutionary that people probably flocked from yards away to have a look.

What it does have going for it is that it is still here a thousand years later, because that is the estimate for how long it has been here. The other thing it has going for it is that it's maintenance cost is virtually zero and unlike the rest of the bridges on Dartmoor it has no potholes or Amazon delivery vans getting in the way. This is actual Stone Age type stuff. Nobody really knows how old these bridges are, unlike wood there are no tree rings to count and you can't Radio Carbon Date rock. The thousand years is only a wild guess, although it is recorded as being here at least 900 years ago.

Clapper Bridge - A fine example, the Postbridge Clapper Bridge, can be found at Postbridge, on Dartmoor. Its slabs are over 4 metres (13 ft) long, 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) wide and weigh over 8 metric tons (7.9 long tons; 8.8 short tons) each, making the bridge passable to a small cart. It was first recorded in 1380 and was built to facilitate the transportation of Dartmoor tin by pack horses to the stannary town of Tavistock.

I have to take issue yet again with Wikipedia here, passable to a small cart? Does it look like it's passable by a small cart to you? Even allowing for the four deep steps how small is Wikipedia's cart? Are they talking Lego here?

This is the later road bridge built in about the 1780's and both bridges are Grade 2 listed. This would have been the equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge when it was built, people must have been in awe. They had never seen potholes before. They probably still walked over the Clapper Bridge not trusting the new fangled arches which could have collapsed at any moment. When trains first appeared doing about twelve miles an hour, people thought their heads would blow up because of the great speed.

Since around 1910, drivers and cyclists have reported suffering unusual accidents along the road between Postbridge and Two Bridges. In many cases, the victims reported that their vehicle had jolted or swerved violently and steered off the side of the road, as if something had taken hold of the wheels and wrenched it out of their control.

So was born the legend of "The Hairy Hands".

In most instances, the victims ran into a verge and survived. Their experiences remained a local curiosity, until June 1921, when E.H. Helby, the medical officer for Dartmoor Prison, was killed when he lost control of his motorcycle combination. Two young girls, children of the prison governor, who had been riding in the sidecar, survived. Several weeks after Helby's death, there was another incident in which a coach driver lost control, injuring several passengers who were thrown out of their seats.

Then, on 26 August 1921, an army Captain reported that a pair of invisible hands had taken hold of him and forced his motorcycle off the road, after which the story was picked up by newspapers in London and the story became known nationwide. (It was the Jussie Smollett event of it's day)

In Supernatural Dartmoor by Michael Williams, there is a story told by journalist and author Rufus Endle. He claimed that, while driving near Postbridge on an unstated date, "a pair of hands gripped the driving wheel and I had to fight for control." He managed to avoid a crash and the hands disappeared as inexplicably as they had come. He requested that Williams not publish the story until after his death, for fear of ridicule. Not all reported incidents occurred in moving vehicles. In one incident, in 1924, a woman camping on the moor with her husband reported seeing a hairy hand attempting to gain access to her caravan during the night. She reported that the hand retreated after she made the sign of the Cross. (Be honest you are all thinking exactly what I am aren't you?)

According to Wikipedia the official investigation of all these cases came to the conclusion that the camber of the road was excessive and was the cause of vehicles losing control. Nobody mentioned the pub though, which I thought strange as most collisions seem to have been vehicles headed out of the village late at night after closing time.

Most of the additional facts came from Wikipedia so you'll have to bear that in mind. The rest was my opinion, so sue me.

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