29 June 2019

The Lucky Old Mill of Vernon and its Less Fortunate Bridges

The old town of Vernon nestles at the side of the river Seine about 75 kilometers away from Paris.  It has, as you can imagine, a long history and has been through periods of momentous change both in France and Europe as a whple.

When change happens there are always winners and losers. In Vernon, architecturally speaking, perhaps it is the old bridge which could be considered most unfortunate – it no longer exists.

In fact it has been rebuilt and destroyed often enough for us to consider it perhaps the unluckiest bridge in the world.

The lucky survivor, in that case, is the old mill house (le vieux moulin) which straddles the first two piers of the ancient bridge. Vernon itself is first mentioned in the archives of the Frankish King Pepin the Short (or the Great, depending on which history books you read) around the 750AD mark.  Vernon as a city was founded in 950 and the first wooden bridge was built at some point in the early twelfth century (though there is argument there among historians too).

At the end of that century, however, the first stone bridge was built. Its construction was ordered by King Philip II, the last King of the Franks and the first King of France.  The bridge was built so Philip could move troops easily in his war with Richard the Lionheart.  At this point in history there were few bridges along the Seine and so Vernon became massively strategically important, for a short time at least.

As luck would have it for the townspeople of Vernon the whole of Normandy became French in 1204 and the town was at peace for over 150 years.  They had, however, this great big bridge and did not hesitate to capitalise on its importance to attract commerce.  Neither did Philip – he recouped much of the cost of building the bridge by selling the rights to establish fisheries and watermills atop the bridge.  The bridge soon had five mills – including the one we can still see today. Its position near the banks of the river would be it savior.

This sounds like a happy ending.  Yet bridges were incredibly high maintenance.  Imagine, 25 arches up to twelve meters wide each.  They were by the standards of the day simply unaffordable to preserve properly.  They were used until they literally collapsed – or were on the verge of plunging in to river and then large engineering projects would somehow be afforded.

Little by little the stone arches were replaced with a wooden superstructure.  By the 1830s only eight of the original 25 remained – those which supported the mills.  The piers had become prone to being swept away by floods and when the bridge was useless the town would have to rely on a ferry service.

This happened with occasionally tragic consequences.  In 1651 two arches collapsed and it was considered too expensive to repair the bridge at the time.  A ferry was initiated: it took longer to cross the river, of course, but was the cheaper option.  Unfortunately on 10 October 1653 the ferry sank drowning over 200 people.

The 1800s saw the fortunes of the bridge revived somewhat.  Primary work on the river tamed it somewhat, with its bottom dredged and a number of islands removed to reduce the currents. Work started on a new bridge a few meters away from the old one in 1858 and it was opened three years later.  The old bridge was dismantled and the owners of the three mills along its 3rd 4th and 5th arches received compensation.  The old mill that you can see in these photographs was the only one to remain.

Around 1883 the mill and its peripheral structures were immortalised by Claude Monet, one of the founders of French impressionist painting.  Although the mill seems in some disrepair it had survived the centuries.

And still it perseveres. Yet where is the 1861 bridge? Surely that should have survived to this day?  Another chapter in the unlucky history of the Vernon Bridge was about to open –and the bridge was about to abruptly close again.  Within a decade the Franco-Prussian war saw the enemy cavalry approaching the town.  The French Engineer Corps saw no other option other than to blow it up to stop the Prussians from crossing and taking the town. 1870 saw the bridge annihilated.

The war ended and two years later, in 1872, the bridge was built again. The 1888 engraving above shows this latest bridge - intact and functioning. Yet, you may well scratch your head.  There is no bridge by the old mill today.  In May 1940 the Germans invaded France. Once more, the French authorities saw no option other than to blow up the bridge in the hope of stemming the German invasion. The German occupiers first created a makeshift footbridge and ferry, replacing it in 1941 with a new bridge.

Yet, again – where can this bridge be seen today? When the Allied forces launched Operation Overlord in 1944 to liberate German occupied Europe this newest bridge was destroyed by aerial bombing (as were all the bridges along this part of the Seine from Paris to Rouen) to disable any attempt by the Germans to reinforce their troops at the front.

By now the mill was in exceptionally poor condition.  It had been damaged by the Allied bombing and was in serious danger of falling in to the Seine.  Its last owner, American William Griffin, died in 1947 and no heirs could be found. Something had to be done and the townspeople of Vernon raised sufficient funds to see it restored.

As for the bridge, a new temporary structure was created after the hostilities ceased and a new permanent structure was opened in 1954 some way up river from where the old bridge had always (perhaps I should say mostly) stood in its various incarnations.  Still the old mill stands.  The age of war between Western European powers has ended and it endured. Perhaps it will stand for another thousand years while France and the world continues to change around it.

First Image Credit Wikimedia