I’ve never seen anything quite like it. With low parapets and a stone-flagged surface, it incorporates a stile consisting of two slightly angled boulders, which I think is called a ‘squeeze stile’, often used in the Yorkshire dales to prevent livestock from passing through.
And how old is it? A search online brought up conflicting answers. One source says it’s 14th century, but another says it is much later, from the late 17th or early 18th centuries. I’m not entirely sure which to believe – the worn step at the base of the stile tells a story of long, continued use; but, even if the later date is correct, 400 years is still a long time!
Some sites describe this as a ‘packhorse bridge’, but no horse, laden or otherwise, would be able to squeeze through that gap. The stile could have been added later, but it doesn’t look like an afterthought. I suspect there may be some confusion between this and another, larger bridge over the River Wharfe: by the look of it, I would say it has always been a footbridge.
When we crossed the bridge, we noticed a female mallard with her brood of five or six ducklings, all newly hatched and fluffy, hiding in the shallows. Sadly, another shower was heading our way and the light wasn’t good enough for photos of any quality.
So, who was Little Emily?
According to folklore, during the English Civil War a local girl called Emily Norton took refuge nearby – but from whom, and why?
The Romantic poet William Wordsworth might have hit on something in his rather lengthy offering entitled ‘The White Doe of Rylstone’. This draws on a local legend from much earlier, and tells the fate of the Norton family at the time of the Reformation in the mid-1500s. In it, Emily Norton is left alone after her nine brothers are killed during a Roman Catholic uprising. According to Wordsworth, she represents ‘undisturbed humanity’ and ‘pure ethereal spirituality’. Even more interestingly, a white doe was said to appear in the churchyard at Bolton Abbey every Sunday, following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Perhaps Emily and the white doe were one and the same.
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf