Waterways of the Humber
Thursday, 28 June 2012
Rotherham's Bridge Chapel
What are the oldest buildings on our inland waterways? Bridge chapels have a good claim. Only four remain on their bridges, and the only one entire and unaltered is at Rotherham - over the River Don, a few yards downstream of where it’s joined by the Rother.
Such chapels were once a common sight for travellers, thankful for a substantial bridge, rather than the ferries from which many lives were lost, or the fords that were impassable when river levels were high.
But a stone bridge was expensive to create and maintain. Medieval non-military construction engineering was almost solely in the hands of the church. The men who built the great cathedrals were probably responsible, chapel-bridges usually having spans the same shape as arching and vaults in religious buildings.
It was chantry-chapels that were built on the bridges, specially designated as sites where priests were paid to chant masses for local people. The funds received were used to maintain the bridge, a system that survived until 1547 when masses, and chantry-chapels, were abolished in the religious traumas of that century.
That was when most of the bridge chapels were lost - Rotherham’s survived, but lost its fittings and windows. After that it had centuries of various uses, an almshouse, a jail with a cell in the crypt, a house, then a tobacconist’s shop in the 1880s.
The town’s inhabitants signed a petition for the restoration of the chapel and in 1924 it was re-consecrated by the Bishop of Sheffield.
Now attention switched to the bridge. The challenge was to create a bridge for motorised traffic without harming the chapel or the medieval arches on which it stood - built in c1483 its roadway was only 15 feet wide, increased to 24ft 6ins in 1769.
The answer was the present Chantry Bridge opened in 1930, about 20ft upstream. The old bridge was incorporated into it as a footway only, reduced to its four arches and original width.
And the River Don? It’s no longer the navigable route, having been bypassed by a lock-cut, and the growth of the town meant its channel was progressively edged westwards.
As a result the chapel’s bridge-arches are now usually on dry land - but not always.
When water levels are very high the Don still flows under the bridge of the Chapel of Our Lady.
The four arches of the original bridge are shown here, with the current road bridge extending from it over the Don's main channel.
Services in the Chapel of Our Lady - Holy Communion, 11.00, Tuesdays.
The other three chapels still on their bridges are at -
St.Ives, Cambridgeshire - over the Great Ouse.
Wakefield - over the River Calder
Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire - near Bradford Lock on the Kennet & Avon Canal