At the very margins of Cornwall, the River Tamar is nonetheless central to Cornish identity. Countless books refer to the river ‘almost’ extending far enough to make Cornwall an island. When Brunel’s railway bridge spanned the estuary at Saltash in 1859 it was widely viewed as ending Cornwall’s remoteness. Even sober industrial archaeologists have written that ‘thereafter [Cornwall] lost its isolation and became wide open to English influence’.
But wasn’t it before? An exasperated former Prime Minister memorably annoyed a lot of people by blurting out ‘it’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake’. But it is a fact that several bridges cross the Tamar. Indeed, it might come as a surprise to find that there are 22 or 23 (estimates vary) road crossings of the Tamar, most of these dating back centuries. The truth is that the Tamar was never a very effective barrier.
The bridges in the middle reaches of the river are the best examples of late medieval constructions. In those days the Church encouraged bridge building by giving indulgences to folk prepared to pay for bridges. In this way Horsebridge, Greystone Bridge and New Bridge at Gunnislake were built in 1437, 1439 and 1520 respectively.
Higher up the river at Launceston is probably the oldest crossing at Polson Bridge, first built maybe in the 1100s. What we see there now is not the original. It was rebuilt in 1835 and then again later by the Victorians, who stuck a rather ugly iron span incongruously between two stone piers. In 1934 this was replaced by a more aesthetically pleasing concrete arch faced with masonry. In 1976 the pressure of the growing traffic over Polson Bridge was eased by the Launceston bypass. Hardly anyone would now notice the bridge the road sweeps across if it weren’t for the sign welcoming people to Cornwall.
Above Polson Bridge in the higher reaches of the Tamar we find the majority – 16 or 17 – of the bridges. Some are medieval. Druxton Bridge is claimed to date from 1370. Alfardisworthy New Bridge looks medieval and it must have replaced an earlier ‘old’ bridge. Others have been rebuilt, for example the bridge at Bridgerule in 1923. Higher New Bridge at Netherton was supplemented by a stronger road bridge in 1985. Boyton Bridge was first built in 1614 as a timber structure, then replaced by a stone bridge, then in 1975 cast iron and finally in 2005 by a concrete span.
Bridges galore! And that’s not to mention the three dismantled late nineteenth century railway bridges across the Tamar or the fine railway viaduct at Calstock, built in the 1890s. So when someone next says the answer to all our ills is to blow up the Tamar road bridge at Saltash (built in 1961), remind them about the other 22.