This evocative photograph, taken by Delwyn Ellis, serves to remind us of the beauty of our heritage when it is cared for and protected. Caergwrle’s Packhorse Bridge is probably the oldest bridge to span the River Alyn and it is one of the finest examples of its type in Wales. However its story acts as a reminder of the need to take prompt action when required.There have probably been bridging points between Hope and Caergwrle from the earliest of times and it seems likely that this included one at the current Fellows Lane location. A bridge here was probably repaired, with timber, upon the orders of the Black Prince in 1365. It was in a dilapidated state again by 1654 when Squire Ellis Yonge, of Bryn lorcyn Manor, petitioned Flintshire Quarter Sessions to repair “Pont Caergwrley” over the River Alyn. Yonge seems to have been the driving force behind moves to construct a more robust one from stone. Although it has been repaired several times, with some alterations, the essential design of the bridge stems from this period.
Packhorse bridges were generally of a narrow construction and the Caergwrle example contains two V-shaped recesses in the parapet walls for pedestrians who might meet a packhorse train whilst crossing the bridge. Writing in 1957, George Lloyd considered there to have been another two recesses in the original structure as well as an additional two cutwaters, one of either side of the bridge. (Flintshire Packhorse Bridges, Flintshire Historical Society Record Series Vol. 17.) The low parapets were intended to allow the passage of bulging packs slung on each side of mules and packhorses.Illustration by Anne Robinson for Discover Hope & Caergwrle
The bridge made a seven-arched connection between Hope and Caergwrle and also served to link Chester to the Ffrith Packhorse Bridge, which crosses the River Cegidog. Relatively remote parts of North Wales, as far afield as Bala, were given direct access to the most important market centre in the region.
Although the bridge was narrow, no one could accuse the Squire of skimping when it came to its length. Seven arches may seem an extravagance, the normal flow of water not appearing to merit them. However, it is now apparent that they were needed in order to take the full force of the flow during exceptional times of flooding. Perhaps the squire had witnessed periods of serious flooding and there was a degree of wisdom in his design.
That foresight and wisdom has not always been present and it is clear that there have been times when the bridge has suffered through neglect. On 25th May, 1956, the Wrexham Leader carried an article drawing attention to the silting up of the seven arches and complained that even the tops of the arches were no longer visible. The article went on to argue that young trees were sprouting from the aged masonry and expressed the fear that the weakened structure of the bridge would be “damaged by heavy flood-water”. The Parish Council at the time urged the then Flintshire County Council and Dee Conservancy Council to carry out the necessary repairs but it seems insufficient was done to address the problem. Half a century later, in November of 2000, the prophetic words of the correspondent came true: the Packhorse Bridge was hit by the freak floods which wreaked havoc across Britain.
The blocked arches could not cope with the torrent of rushing water and the bridge itself became a dam. By checking the river’s flow, the bridge actually forced thousands of gallons of water across the floodplain and into nearby homes.Neighbouring residents only received relief from flooding when the weakened masonry of the bridge finally gave way, releasing the surging torrent to tear into the downstream banks of the Alyn. The early warnings had not been heeded and it was left to the successor authorities to foot the bill.
In summer of 2001 the Packhorse Bridge was given a new lease of life as a result of restoration work, carried out by Flintshire County Council. The estimated cost of repair was in the region of £100,000, and was split between the then Welsh Assembly and Flintshire County Council.
Past experience shows that regular work is required to ensure that the Packhorse Bridge does not suffer from further structural damage. Silt accumulates under the archways, trees sprout from the masonry and the mortar in the stonework continues to need attention.
It has been necessary for Flintshire County Council to take remedial action of a number of occasions since 2001, most notably in January 2009 following the collapse of an arch in 2008. Once again the cost was borne jointly by Flintshire County Council and the Welsh Assembly, the latter contributing the sum of £43,966.
The Packhorse Bridge before restoration work in July 2015
By late July of 2015 it was apparent trees were sprouting from the walls once again. In addition, the deterioration of the parapet stonework was so bad in some places that the bridge was an easy target for vandalism. Flintshire County Council was made aware of the situation; work on the Packhorse Bridge was already on the list. On the evening of 24th one of the coping stones was removed and thrown into the river. A further stone was removed on 27th: Caergwrle’s heritage was under attack and this time it was from those who should have known better.
It has to be acknowledged that Flintshire County Council tackled the job at breakneck speed, turning what might have been perceived as a threat into an opportunity for improvement. An inspection was carried out by Streetscene on 28th. A team was on the job on 29th and by 30th the Packhorse Bridge was looking better than it had looked within the living memory of many residents.
The Streetscene team recovered the missing stones from the River Alyn and put them back into place. They removed rooted trees that were causing structural damage and took a large amount of weed and silt from beneath the blocked archways. They completely exposed an archway that had virtually disappeared and opened up another channel for the river to prevent further damage by flooding. Six of the seven original archways are now open for floodwater to pass through.Flintshire’s swift action has been greatly welcomed. If the area is hit by freak flooding again every effort has been made to avoid damage to the bridge. The team involved deserve to be commended.
Recent experiences do, of course, provoke several questions. Are there ways by which we, as a community, can work to preserve important parts of our heritage? Can we engage young people in ways which generate respect for monuments like the Packhorse Bridge and Caergwrle Castle? How will these monuments be managed during a period of severe austerity given the apparent expense involved? To what extent can the community itself act so that future generations can enjoy our heritage?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policy of Flintshire County Council. Readers are welcome to contact the author with any news or views on the local heritage at DHealey204@aol.com or by telephoning 01978 761 523.