Context 169 - September 2021

16 C O N T E X T 1 6 9 : S E P T E M B E R 2 0 2 1 to his bridge in January 2020 brought an imme- diate and overwhelming response. There were offers to carry out repairs, to supply materials and to raise funds. One chap even offered to chain himself to the bridge ‘so that a bunch of snowflakes don’t tear it down for the sake of a few planks’. When someone else reacted by setting up an online petition for Essex Highways to restore rather than replace the bridge, almost 800 people voted in favour. Many of them left comments showing just how much the bridge was valued: as an unusual historic structure, a unique feature of the local landscape, and a living memorial to a Coggeshall legend. One offer of help was the result of an extraor- dinary stroke of luck. The bridge’s plight came to the attention a local resident, who happened to be one of the country’s leading experts on historic bridges. Ed Morton, director of the Morton Partnership and a former contributor to Context , offered to inspect the bridge pro bono. A historic survey was also undertaken, and information gathered by a local historian and volunteers from Coggeshall Museum, whose archive was opened out of season. Then the virus hit and we were in lockdown. Updates to the Coggeshall online group contin- ued with photos and details about the campaign. The parish council, who were now meeting via Zoom, were kept in touch. The Coggeshall Society became involved, and passed on news to its members by email. Extraordinarily, under lockdown the whole community came together to fight for the bridge in ways that were unim- aginable just a few years ago. Ed Morton’s inspection concluded that the bridge could be restored at less than the cost of replacement. A call went out to lobby the parish council. In response a deluge of emails poured into its mailbox giving incontrovertible evidence of public support for restoration. The expertise of another member of the online group led to an application to the district council for local list- ing. Although this gives no statutory protection, it does formally recognise buildings or features with cultural or historic value to a community. A call for photographs showed just how much the old bridge featured in many treasured mem- ories. Family, friends and dogs were pictured on the bridge through the generations and in all seasons. A compilation of these went off with the application (the document itself was assembled by another local with desktop publishing experi- ence). Also included were letters of support from local groups including footpath walkers, the heritage society and the parish council. It was during the process of making the appli- cation for local listing that it became evident that Nunn’s bridge might be of more than local importance. Blacksmith bridges may once have been common, but as an unregarded class they are routinely replaced, so Nunn’s is an increas- ingly rare survival. Indeed it may be unique in that its maker, cost and history are so well recorded. As for its structure, although Dick had used readily available wrought-iron bar and rod (which was probably manufactured for use in estate fencing), his handling of this material was highly sophisticated. Driven by the need to keep costs down, he used a minimum of materials to produce a lightweight design that was very strong and stable. This was demonstrated at the 1992 centenary when the bridge was packed with people for a photo but showed no sign of movement or instability. This strength and economy was not the result of calculation, but of a lifetime’s experience as a master blacksmith. The bridge is also notable as an act of social activism by a working man: Dick’s campaigns for rights of way and the welfare of people and animals were ahead of his time. We became convinced that the bridge had sufficient merit to apply for national listing by Historic England. An application was made and in October 2020 came the news that Nunn’s Bridge had been listed Grade II. Plans to replace the bridge have been dropped and a full restoration will now take place, with completion expected in the autumn of 2021. Perhaps by then we will all be able to get together again and properly celebrate this wonderful communal achievement. Trevor Disley is a local historian.