Cowley Bridge


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of Cowley Bridge
© Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Devon (District Authority)
Upton Pyne
Exeter (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SX 90728 95504

Reasons for Designation

Multi-span bridges are structures of two or more arches supported on piers. They were constructed throughout the medieval period for the use of pedestrians and packhorse or vehicular traffic, crossing rivers or streams, often replacing or supplementing earlier fords. During the early medieval period timber was used, but from the 12th century stone (and later brick) bridges became more common, with the piers sometimes supported by a timber raft. Most stone or brick bridges were constructed with pointed arches, although semicircular and segmental examples are also known. A common medieval feature is the presence of stone ashlar ribs underneath the arch. The bridge abutments and revetting of the river banks also form part of the bridge. Where medieval bridges have been altered in later centuries, original features are sometimes concealed behind later stonework, including remains of earlier timber bridges. The roadway was often originally cobbled or gravelled. The building and maintenance of bridges was frequently carried out by the church and by guilds, although landowners were also required to maintain bridges. From the mid-13th century the right to collect tolls, known as pontage, was granted to many bridges, usually for repairs; for this purpose many urban bridges had houses or chapels on them, and some were fortified with a defensive gateway. Medieval multi-span bridges must have been numerous throughout England, but most have been rebuilt or replaced and less than 200 examples are now known to survive. As a rare monument type largely unaltered, surviving examples and examples that retain significant medieval and post- medieval fabric are considered to be of national importance.

Although bridges were constructed by carpenters or stone masons throughout the medieval period increasingly, from the beginning of the 18th century, professional engineers were involved in bridge design and by 1800, bridge building was almost exclusively the work of the engineer. James Green, who designed Cowley Bridge, was one of this new breed of engineer, and one of his earliest works, following his appointment as County Surveyor of Bridges, was the replacement of the old Cowley Bridge. The bridge which was erected was in a classical style and it is essentially unaltered, being a fine example of a multi-span bridge of the early 19th century. The bridge is well-documented and it stands on the site of a succession of timber and stone bridges which have been recorded from the late 13th century.


The monument includes Cowley Bridge, an early 19th century stone bridge spanning the River Exe some 3km upstream from the city of Exeter. It is located on the site of a succession of bridges at this spot, the earliest of which to be recorded dates to 1286. The bridge carries the road which connects Exeter with Crediton and North Devon and it is Listed Grade II*. Designed in a classical style by the civil engineer James Green, Cowley Bridge was built over the course of 1813-14 to replace an earlier bridge which was found to have been too narrow. It is constructed largely of local volcanic trap stone and comprises of three segmental arches with a total span of 50m, these arches being supported by two piers which also provide the cutwaters. There are pilasters above the cutwaters with large round-headed niches all fashioned in volcanic trap ashlar as is the dentilled exterior string-course (i.e. a line of small projecting blocks) at road level. The ashlar parapet above the string-course has coping stones of granite. The voussoirs (the visible exterior elements of the arches) are of volcanic trap ashlar as are the abutments. The total length of the bridge inclusive of its abutments is about 74m and it is 11m wide inclusive of a carriageway width of about 8m. The designer of the bridge, James Green, was born in 1781 and died in 1849; he was County Bridge Surveyor in Devon for the years 1808-1841 and Cowley Bridge is considered to be his most important work. A tablet on the southern side of the bridge records the year of construction (1813-14) and cites the work as having been carried out at the joint expense of the County of Devon and the Chamber of Exeter. A dwarf pillar on the northern side records the first stone laid on 22nd June 1813. Cowley was the site of a timber bridge known to have been in existence by 1286 and which stood until at least 1340. At some stage it was replaced by stone and major repairs are recorded in 1536 and 1545. A stone bridge at the site was destroyed by the Royalists in the Civil War around 1646 in order to frustrate a Parliamentarian advance on Exeter. The bridge which was erected in its place after the end of hostilities may have been that of four arches which was reported by Green in 1809 (only one year into his appointment as County Bridge Surveyor) to have been in good repair but too narrow. If so, it was this bridge which was replaced by Green's three arch structure of 1813-14.

The modern tarmac surfacing of the carriageway across the bridge is excluded from the scheduling, although the bridge fabric below it is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Henderson, C, Jervoise, E , Old Devon Bridges, (1938), 60-61
Henderson, C, Jervoise, E , Old Devon Bridges, (1938), 59
Stoyle, M, The Civil War defences of Exeter, 1990, EMAFU Report 90.26 (unpub)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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