A clapper bridge is a primitive form of stone bridge made by laying large slabs of rock across stone piers. Classically, clapper bridges were built near fords, situating them close to established paths, and some were quite large. Most clapper bridges are found in the United Kingdom, although various clapper-style bridges can be found in other regions of the world, including areas as far-flung as China. It is possible to see some clapper bridges on walking tours of certain regions of Britain, especially Devon, where several intact clapper bridges can be viewed.
This bridge design is believed to be prehistoric in origin, although most of the surviving clapper bridges only date to the medieval period. To make a clapper bridge, construction teams had to haul and cut rocks to make piers, and then find large slabs of rock to lay across the piers. Some clapper bridges were wide enough to accommodate a cart, while others were designed for pedestrians or riders only, with carts proceeding in the ford next to the clapper bridge. Typically, niceties such as rails were lacking, and many clapper bridges were established in very shallow water, so a fall would not have been catastrophic.
The term “clapper” comes from the Anglo-Saxon cleaca, “to bridge stepping stones,” which provides some hints into the origins of the clapper bridge. This design probably evolved from the stepping stones once used by pedestrians to cross rivers, with some smart engineer realizing that the stepping stones could be turned into a bridge with the use of slabs or rock or wood.
Clapper bridges made it easier for people to get around, allowing pedestrians to cross rivers easily without having to get wet, and often permitting riders to do the same. These bridges began to fall into disuse as sturdier methods of bridge construction were developed, and undoubtedly many clapper bridges were destroyed to make room for newer bridges historically, allowing people to use the roads and routes they were familiar with to reach various locations.
Some historical preservation organizations work to preserve clapper bridges so that future generations can enjoy this piece of human history. Clapper bridges are also not uncommon in private homes and gardens, where people may enjoy the rustic look of a traditional clapper bridge in preference to more modern designs, especially in an old-fashioned garden. Modern versions of the clapper bridge may be secured with cement or mortar to make them safer.