Today it’s a bridge to nowhere. Trinity Bridge in the heart of Crowland sits at a road junction a long way away from any river. But before it was left high and dry the bridge was a vital crossing point in south Lincolnshire dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.

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This being fenland, the phrase altering the rivers course comes to mind.

Sure enough, the River Welland now flows on a dead straight course to the west of the town along what is termed the Deeping High Bank. The Trinity or Triangular Bridge is said to be unique. Certainly, it is unusual and rather special. It stands in the middle of the town, at the junction of North, South, East and West Streets. Before the town was bypassed by the A1073 leading south to Peterborough, it was a familiar landmark for through traffic. It holds at least one mystery the identity of its mysterious carved stone figure, which people still argue about. The story of the bridge goes back to the 7th century when this part of the country was very different a time when England was divided into many kingdoms and when lonely saints found their way to remote islands.

The fens were wild country then.

Crowland stood on a series of islands on higher ground. It was here that a noble young Mercian soldier-turned-monk, named Guthlac, landed his boat in 699AD. In this strange country, notoriously lawless and criss-crossed by treacherous marshland punctuated by dry land here and there, he set up a cell and became a celebrated hermit. After surviving on a hunk of bread and a cup of stagnant marsh water a day, Guthlac suffered from fen ague and fever, imagining himself tormented by the demons who he believed lived on the island. But he survived, and his reputation for holiness grew. When he befriended Ethelbald, an exiled pretender to the Mercian throne (roughly, the land corresponding to todays Midlands) the fortunes of the little settlement of Croyland or Crowland rose. Saint Guthlacs friend Ethelbald later became king, as the holy man had predicted. He came to dominate much of southern England, but he did not forget his time in the fens. In 716, after Guthlacs death, the king founded a monastery and shortly afterwards, in a royal charter, mentions the Bridge of Croyland.

Not the current structure?

The early bridge was probably made of timber, and not a trace survives. What we see today was built between 1360 and 1390. It has an odd triangular design it has three arches but is one structure hence its name Trinity or three in one. This came about because in those days it stood at the point where the River Welland divided into two streams. One led past the abbey at the water gate on the south side of the abbey site and the townspeople used it for sanitary and sewerage purposes. It drained into the River Nene. The main branch of the Welland meanwhile carried on northwards towards Spalding. These waterways were eventually covered over by the current street pattern. Arched over, they now serve as sewers.

It would have been an important place.

With its magnificent abbey acting as a landmark and attraction, Crowland thrived in the medieval period. Providing a crossing for traffic would also have boosted the towns importance. In the days when travel was so difficult in the fenland, any river crossing for heavy traffic was more than welcome. King Stephen granted the town a charter in 1142, while Henry VI allowed it to hold a fair and a market in the 15th century. The bridge at one time had a large cross at its apex. It may have been used as a platform by preaching monks and as a centre of devotion for pilgrims approaching the abbey. During the Middle Ages it had gentle slopes leading upwards in more recent times steep steps have been substituted. Occasional outdoor religious services still take place there. The suppression of the monastery in the 16th century hit Crowland badly, economically and socially, and the population ebbed away. Later land drainage and the alteration of the river course from the 17th century onwards eventually made the Trinity Bridge redundant. Navigation of the Welland became easier for larger craft, but the town and its bridge were bypassed.

And who is the mysterious figure?

The identity of the regally-seated life-size statue is open to debate. Some say it is King Ethelbald, complete with royal orb. More mischievous observers have said it represents Oliver Cromwell holding a penny loaf. This is hardly likely; Olivers Ironside troopers besieged and bombarded royalist Crowland back in 1643 and he is not remembered fondly here. Local legend has it his artillery bombarded the abbey in which royalist defenders were holding out. Far more likely is that the statue is a representation of God or Jesus holding the world in His hands. If so, it bears a striking resemblance to statues on the surviving west front of the abbey and it is more than likely taken from there and placed in a more lowly position on the bridge.

And today?

In 2002 Lincolnshire County Council halted long-term subsidence at the bridge with a speedy but sensitive programme of renovation. No damage was done to the fabric of the bridge or surrounding archaeological deposits. The council won an award at the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards 2003. Recognised as an offbeat historic monument, the bridge continues to baffle and beguile. The quiet town of Crowland has many historic buildings, and both the abbey and bridge are worth a detour from the main road.

WEBSITES

www.visitlincolnshire.com
www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guthlac

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