The Timber Trail – History in the Making

Weaving through the narrow lanes on western Dartmoor, I’m heading up a dead-end, single-track road. As I arrive at Lane End, the hard surfacing gives way to open windswept moorland. Oh no! I’ve gone too far! I need to go back and look for a small track … and there it is, guiding me between two age-old stone walls. It feels like I’m going back in time; this landscape has hardly changed in hundreds of years, but it is very inviting. The hand crafted boundaries take me on a gently curving path down to the higher reaches of the River Tavy and I can sense the many thousands of feet and hooves that have passed this way before me.

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This remote valley is set in some of the most magnificent landscape on the moor and, as I leave the views of rock strewn tors, I descend into an ancient world of gnarled oak trees and pure tumbling water. This is where a natural river crossing point has been used for thousands of years, probably since the stone age; the White Tor neolithic settlement is only a mile away. Here the River Tavy splits and passes either side of a small domed island of wood rush and twisted trees. It just feels old here, antiquated, lost in time.

The map shows I’m at Standon Steps and I’m half expecting to find a set of stepping stones, but I approach a wooden bridge. This is where local woodworker Alasdair Kilpatrick and his apprentice Simon are working on some repairs. The slightly dilapidated structure is showing signs of age and the decaying timbers have not stood up to the rotten ravages of time but it’s a fascinating bridge with an equally intriguing story. It was built by German Prisoners of War in 1946 and the six concrete piers support some weighty iron girders which are all exactly where they were constructed at the end of the Second World War. Over the years, the footbridge has been patched up and again, it is in need of some work before the heavy foot traffic of the Ten Tors arrives in Spring.

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Alasdair is in his element out on the moor and enjoys the challenge of shoring up the structure, making it safe until funds are available for major reconstruction. Rob Taylor, the Dartmoor National Park Ranger is managing the maintenance of this little piece of history and aims to keep the footpath open and safe. He has arranged for the new timbers to be sourced locally and another local woodsman, Jim White, has milled and supplied larch and Douglas fir from two Woodland Trust woods on the other side of the moor. He said, “the structural beams are milled from larch from the Bovey Valley Woods and the Douglas fir boards are from Fingle Woods. It’s all Dartmoor timber.”

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While Jim delivered more timber, he and Alasdair discussed the design of the repairs. Alasdair explained, “all of the new woodwork is fixed beneath the bridge deck and the struts support the wobbly old uprights. It’s the right solution from an engineering point of view.”

Jim added, “with all the boots that are going to come this way, it’s going to stand for some time yet. It’s also an important connection for the farmer. He brings his sheep across this bridge.” An exuberant Alasdair added, “I’ve never worked anywhere like this before, it’s beautiful and the history of the bridge is fascinating. I’m glad we’re keeping it going a bit longer.”

by Matt Parkins

The history of the bridge

plaque monoThis cement plaque is fixed to one of the bridge piers and tells the story of those who built it. ‘Erbaut’ translates from German to English as ‘constructed’. Throughout August and September 1946, prisoners of war (PoW) who were held in local camps, left this legacy which many of us still enjoy today. Their camp, No.673 was based at Home Park in Plymouth and at Bridestowe near Okehampton.

structureThe structure comprises six piers, spanned by 10” i-section steel joists. The wooden bridge deck is fixed on top of the joists with wooden hand rails.

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