I will never forget the date in 1968 that Bideford Bridge collapsed! It was the day after the birth of our first child at the Grenville Nursing Home in Meddon Street. News came to the Nursing Home as the day shift staff arrived. I seem to remember one midwife’s husband was an AA patrolman – no doubt involved with hasty ‘diversion signs’.
I then realised that my parents must have been amongst the last people to cross the Bridge safely returning to High Bickington, having just been introduced to their new grandson. The following week, I remember my father taking me to the Quay area ,just opposite the Library ,to see the extensive damage. For both of our families it was then a detour of several miles to reach Bideford via Weare Giffard, and that was necessary until well into the Spring.
I’m not sure whether my husband was more proud of his photos of his new son or of the damaged edifice! Certainly that crumbling bridge and the cuddly baby were both life-changing events for a while!
At the time I lived in Hartland, and had spent that evening in Barnstaple. As I was returning home, and driving along Barnstaple Street towards the Bridge, I was aware that traffic in front was being stopped by the police , which then turned left to East- the- Water. The evening was cold and frosty, and the roads, where they have not been gritted, were icy. On being told by the police what the problem was, I was concerned how I was to get to the A39 to Hartland. I was directed up through East-the-Water and on to the ‘back’ road towards Torrington. I was not familiar with the road and the journey was not the best ,especially for a female on her own. I must have travelled at least an extra fifteen miles to the accepted twenty three then normally associated with the distance from Hartland to Barnstaple. I do not remember the time I reached home, but of course, it was much later than I, or my parents expected. A journey and the reason for it shall never forget.
I was returning home to Northam, having visited my sister in Barnstaple. As I drove past the Royal Hotel a policeman put up his hand indicating that I should stop. He said ‘ The Bridge has collapsed and you can’t go across’ . I replied ‘I only want to go to Northam’ ‘ Sorry you will have to go another way.’ So I drove up the main road, stopping at a telephone box to let my husband know, through my neighbour’s telephone, that I would be late home. I remember the call cost 3d. I followed the rear lights of another car hoping the driver knew the way to Weare Giffard. I think it must have been snowing as I can remember snow at the side of the road. As I got to the top of the hill leading to Weare Giffard a car came towards me and I recognised the driver. He stopped and said ‘Don’t go down there, there’s a traffic jam with several cars unable to go either way as the road is flooded’. So I turned the car and followed the other one to Torrington. When I eventually arrived home my husband was watching out for me. At first he didn’t believe my neighbour and actually said ‘She’s never used an excuse like that for being late.’ Then he saw the Bridge on TV and realised it was closed to all traffic. That was a night I shall never forget
At the time of the Old Bridge incident I was a CID officer stationed at Bideford Police Station . I was returning home from East the Water about 7pm that evening driving across the Bridge . I was about half way across when I saw Constable Ken Whitfield ,who flagged me down, and I thought there was a road accident on the town side. I could hardly believe it when he told me that the Bridge had collapsed, as there was no sign on the surface that anything was wrong. I went with him to the South parapet and on looking over the side could see that a pier had indeed subsided. Ken then returned to the police station to report (no mobile phones in those days). I remained, as traffic was still travelling across in both directions. I was in’civvies’ so drivers didn’t take much notice of me. However a few minutes later a double decker bus arrived from Barnstaple. At first the driver, to say the least, wasn’t best pleased when I told him to reverse, but on seeing what occurred, he did so and put the bus across the end of the bridge. Meanwhile I had put my car broadside so that nothing could cross from the other side. Other officers and council employees arrived a little later. All traffic was stopped from crossing that night, but pedestrians continued to use it. Being January it was a very dark night with the river quite high, but it wasn’t till the morning that the full extent of the problem became known with people trying to get to work etc. Local boatmen started a ferry service across the river, and a mobile police office was set up opposite the Royal Hotel. The original report was made to Bideford Police Station by two ladies on their way to Bingo.