With Mum ensconced in Wallingford Community Hospital, I’ve been making regular trips from Oxford to see her. There’s a number of routes you can use to cover the 15 or so miles, but the most interesting takes you via Littlemore, via Berinsfield, then past the Wittenham Clumps to the little village of Shillingford. From there you cross the Thames and make for the castle town of Wallingford. There’s much to like about Wallingford, not least the care Mum’s receiving at their hospital, but the bridge over the Thames is what has caught my eye. Prior to 1974 the bridge spanned Oxfordshire to Berkshire but the little structure has a story to tell.
On the face of it, its little more than a single track bridge built in stone, but the location is stunning, with the boats moored up by the hotel, and mock-tudor boathouse downstream heading towards Benson Reach. This is the third bridge here, the first lost in the mists of time, but was thought to have existed in the 14th century. What is certain is that the trip across the Thames was made by boat from 1379 to 1767 when a timber bridge was built. That Shillingford ferry was operated by Roger Hurst, Porter of Wallingford Castle and remained a free perk to the Castle’s porters until 1530. It was then leased to Roger Hacheman who also leased a small dwelling on what was then the Berkshire (south) bank in 1545. That dwelling was expanded several times, becoming Swan Inn by 1608 and is now the Shillingford Bridge Hotel.
In 1749 lawyer William Blackstone, Recorder of Wallingford travelled to Oxford regularly using the ferry. He quickly tired of having to take the longer route over Wallingford Bridge in times of flood, so petitioned to Parliament to get a bridge built. An Act of Parliament was granted royal assent in 1763 for, “For repairing and widening the Road from Shillingford in the County of Oxford, through Wallingford and Pangbourne to Reading in the County of Berks and for building of a Bridge over the River Thames at or near Shillingford Ferry.” The wooden bridge was opened on 25th April 1767, with the Turnpike Trust taking out a loan of £7,700 which covered both the host of purchasing the ferry rights, and the construction of the bridge.
By 1826 the bridge was in poor repair and was closed, and the ferry reinstated whilst the current stone bridge was built. That required an act of Parliament to renew the trustees’ powers, and its in the act’s wording that the bridge’s little footnote in history lies. It states that a fine of 20 to 40 shillings would be levied on, “Any person who shall not keep his carriage on the left hand side of the road.” This is one of the first mentions anywhere of the convention of driving on the left in the UK!
When the Reading to Oxford Railway opened in 1844 bridge traffic declined and in 1874 the last toll was levied as the trustees handed the bridge over to the two counties. The toll keeper’s house was demolished in 1937, but otherwise the bridge is untouched save for one small, but vital detail. The road is now single track, so the 1826 Act’s potential fine is now irrelevant. That seems almost a pity given its place in motoring history!