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Oakley Bridges

Oakley Bridge about 1900 [Z1130/85]
Oakley Bridge about 1900 [Z1130/85]

There are two bridges close together in Church Lane, together known as Oakley Bridges. The larger of these bridges is Oakley Bridge; it was listed by the former Department of Environment in May 1952 as Grade II, of special interest. The department dated the bridge to the early 19th century. It is built of coursed limestone rubble and has five semi-circular arches and no cutwaters.

This early 19th century date is backed up by evidence from papers in the archive of the Russell family, Dukes of Bedford, which owned most of Oakley as Lords of the Manor of Oakley Reynes from 1737 to 1918. Before the early 19th century there was no major bridge at this point, vehicles using a ford just downstream of Oakley Mill which stood on the north bank of the River Great Ouse adjoining the western end of today’s Oakley Bridge. A narrow foot bridge, described as built of stone on a timber frame, is shown on the estate plan of Oakley from 1737 [R1/37]. One arch remains of this older foot bridge, separated from the rest of Oakley Bridge to the south by a causeway over a small island.

The old Mill Bridge September 2011
The old Mill Bridge September 2011

A bill for bricklayers’ work for the “Bridge at Oakley Mill” survives in the Russell Archive [Voucher 97 presented at Lady Day 1813]. A later voucher, 154, refers to stone bought from the Surveyor of the Highways for Bromham. This suggests that the northern end of the old foot bridge was first widened in line with the intended new bridge, then stone bought for the new bridge which seems to have been completed in 1815 as a ledger [R5/1353] contains a whole page of accounts for the “new bridge at Oakley” and states that in 1815 the very large sum of £506/15/4 was expended on it. Thomas Orlebar Marsh wrote on 31st July 1815 [BC532]: “Saw Oakley new bridge of 5 arches and with a parapet wall this bridge is nearly finished and is passable”. Further ledgers from 1815 onwards [R5/1326-1347] give figures for repairs. These began as early as 1819 when the Duke repaired two arches [QBM 1 page 114].

The flood marker at Oakley Bridge September 2011
The flood marker at Oakley Bridge September 2011

Further repairs were necessary in 1823 [H/WS1458] following an exceptionally high flood on 1st November, indicated by a mark on a limestone pillar to the north of the bridge. The Quarter Sessions reported that the bridge was still owned by the Duke in 1848 [QBP6].

The text on the flood marker September 2011
The text on the flood marker September 2011

In 1918 the Duke sold the Oakley Estate [AD1147/18], some of it by auction, other parts, notably Oakley House and its grounds, privately to his cousin the 2nd Baron Ampthill. The sale particulars state that the owner of Oakley House had “liability to repair the Chancel of Oakley Church and of maintaining the Bridge over the Back Brook [i.e. Oakley South Bridge] and one-third of Stafford Bridge”. No mention was made of repairs to Oakley Bridge despite the Duke having paid for repairs as recently as 1911 [Hi/C/P21, 7a]. However, in 1919 Bedfordshire County Council approved the bridge as a county bridge and thus took on the responsibility of repairing it [Hi/C/M6 page 162].

 Oakley South Bridge March 2011
Oakley South Bridge March 2011

A single arched bridge stands a few yards south of Oakley Bridge and, consequently is known as Oakley South Bridge. It connects with Oakley Bridge via a causeway over an island. It, too, is made of coursed limestone rubble and also has a set of wooden railings; according to Angela Simco and Peter McKeague in their Bedfordshire Archaeology Monograph Number 2 of 1997 Bridges of Bedfordshire it is the last road bridge in the county to retain them. It, too, presumably, was completed in 1815. In 1923 it was recommended that this bridge, too, become a county bridge [Hi/CM6 page 299].

Oakley Bridge September 2011
Oakley Bridge September 2011

As anyone who has driven over Oakley Bridges will know, they are very narrow, wide enough for only one vehicle at a time. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries the amount of traffic they have had to carry has substantially weakened them, making frequent repairs necessary. Bromham parish council papers [PCBromham14/6] from 1979 to 1982 include a report on usage of the bridge and correspondence about the issue.

Oakley Bridge March 2011
Oakley Bridge March 2011