Some history of the Metal Bridge Inn at Rockcliffe in the county of Cumberland

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Known for many years as the Metal Bridge Inn, this hostelry was formerly known simply as the Bridge Inn and, for two periods, also bore the sign of the King's Arms. Indeed, it was known as such in the early 19th century before the construction of the bridge.

Rockcliffe : Map extract showing the location of the Metal Bridge Inn [1863]
© Crown Copyright. Reproduced with kind permission of the National Library of Scotland under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.

This map extract shows the cluster of buildings at Metalbridge, a term that was applied to the remote settlement, though it has also been known as Blackford. It may have been remote but it was once an important stopping place at the crossing of the River Esk. The road seen here still survives as an access lane to the building before dipping under the M6 and around to Lynefoot, close to which there was once a ford between Kailpot Pool and Horse Pool.

Rockcliffe : Thomas Telford's iron bridge constructed in 1820
© Image from author's photographic archive. DO NOT COPY

The so-called Metal Bridge was constructed in 1820. Thomas Telford had submitted a report to the committee of the House of Commons in 1811 outlining proposals for a new road scheme, including nine bridges, between Carlisle and Portpatrick. The great cost of the project was perhaps a factor in the delay with construction. There was pressure from the Post Office to improve communications between Carlisle and Glasgow, their lobbying leading to government funding being made available.

According to some sources the Metal Bridge was cast at the foundry of William Hazeldine at Plas Kynaston, Ruabon, in Denbighshire, with the intention of being put across a Welsh river, but that it was acquired and adapted by Telford for use here at the River Esk.¹ When the bridge was opened to traffic in the summer of 1820 the London Chronicle reported that "the new and elegant bridge would shorten the pilgrimage to the temple of Hymen, at Gretna Green, by a full five miles." ² The newspaper reported that the structure consisted of two arches which, as can be seen from the above Edwardian image, was not an accurate description. The bridge clearly had three open-lattice Bonnar arches. The pub can be seen on the opposite river bank.

Rockcliffe : Entrance to the iron bridge constructed in 1820 with the Metal Bridge Inn [c.1905]
© Image from author's photographic archive. DO NOT COPY

This photograph highlights a key issue of the old bridge. The entrance to the structure was too narrow for 20th century traffic. The bridge did not quite last a century and was taken down when a new structure of steel and concrete was opened in May 1916.

Three years earlier, in October 1913, during a meeting of the Rockcliffe Parish Council, it was proposed that a petition should be forwarded to the County Council to allow the old Metal Bridge to remain standing. With Major Gubbins in the chair, it was stated that they believed the structure was one of the earliest iron bridges to be built. The Chairman thought that the "peculiar pillars of the Metal Bridge and the handsome iron lamp-posts would be clearly observed from the new structure, and he was of the opinion that it would be of great interest to passers-by." Furthermore, he thought that "the old bridge might possibly be left as a footpath, as the view from it was extensive and beautiful." ³ During our coastal pub tour, we certainly would have appreciated the old iron structure rather than the concrete bridge we rode across. Replacing the 1916 bridge, the present structure was erected in 1971. Indeed, cracks had started to appear on the 1916 bridge as early as 1958, leading to the Royal Engineers erecting a bascule bridge over the structure whilst repairs were carried out.⁴

During the 19th century the Bridge Inn formed part of a farm. In the 1840s Scottish-born Thomas Baxter was recorded as both publican and farmer. He kept the tavern with his wife Jane who hailed from Carlisle. One of the fields close to the tavern was the venue for ploughing matches of the Cumberland and Westmorland Agricultural Society, the Baxter family providing dinner and refreshments.

Rockcliffe : Former farm buildings at the Metal Bridge Inn [2024]
© Photo taken by author on June 21st, 2024. DO NOT COPY

Some of the farm buildings can still be seen today, partly barn structures and perhaps stabling for travellers making their way across the old Metal Bridge. The 1851 census shows that Thomas and Jane Baxter were farming 124 acres so it was a significant agricultural enterprise. The couple employed several farm labourers.⁵ Thomas Baxter died towards the end of 1855 when widow Jane took over as landlady whilst still operating the farm. Around this period Marion Tait was the toll-bar keeper, her duties included collecting the fees for those utilising the bridge on the turnpike road.⁶

Marion Tait was still the toll collector in the early 1870s, by which time the Metal Bridge Inn was kept by the Cartner family. Mary Cartner succeeded her mother and was farmer and innkeeper during the late Victorian era. She was assisted by her son, Thomas, and a number of agricultural labourers. During her time the Metal Bridge Inn became a famous resort for anglers visiting the Esk. She was held in great esteem for the hospitality she afforded visitors and patrons. Indeed, when she died in October 1899, the Fishing Gazette reported that the landlady was "esteemed for her kindliness and straightforward independence. She loved old-fashioned ways, and gave no countenance to things new fangled." As innkeeper for many years, Mary Cartner frequently had large parties at the hostelry, a tavern which anglers looked upon as a home. Some would stay for several weeks, a place described as an old-fashioned farmhouse, the type of which was, even in the late 19th century, regarded as a rarity. Mary Cartner developed an intimate relationship with her surroundings and could advise patrons on the best places to wield their fishing rod. Her hospitality became legendary and it was said that she entertained guests royally.⁷

Following the death of the landlady, a degree of continuity was maintained as the Metal Bridge Inn was continued by her son, Thomas. In 1900 he married Margaret McLean, daughter of the station master for the Caledonian Railway at Gretna. Possibly because of the coronation of King Edward VII, the couple were responsible for changing the inn sign to that of the King's Arms. This was a reversion to the pub's early sign. Following the death of her husband, Margaret Cartner succeeded to the role of farmer and innkeeper, a position she held until her death in October 1935.

Licensees of the Metal Bridge Inn

1829 - Richard Rigg
1841 - Thomas Baxter
1858 - Jane Baxter
1878 - Mary Cartner
1915 - Margaret Cartner
Note : this is not a complete list of licensees for this pub. The dates of early licensees are sourced from trade directories, census data, electoral rolls, rate books and newspaper articles. Names taken from trade directories may be slightly inaccurate as there is some slippage from publication dates and the actual movement of people.

Rockcliffe : The Metal Bridge [2024]
© Photo taken by author on June 21st, 2024. DO NOT COPY

By the time we rolled along to the old farmhouse during our coastal pub tour, the Metal Bridge was operating as a restaurant rather than a pub. The business also offered camping facilities and glamping pods. I took a couple of photographs of the interior, though refurbishments make it hard to envisage an old tavern.

Rockcliffe : Interior of The Metal Bridge [2024]
© Photo taken by author on June 21st, 2024. DO NOT COPY

Rockcliffe : Dining Area of The Metal Bridge [2024]
© Photo taken by author on June 21st, 2024. DO NOT COPY


References
1. "Bridging The Esk" : Penrith Observer; May 9th, 1916. p.4.
2. "The New Bridge" : London Chronicle; August 9th, 1820. p.2.
3. "The Old Metal Bridge" : Carlisle Journal; October 28th, 1913. p.5.
4. "Bailey Bridge Over The River Esk" : Carlisle Journal; April 28th, 1958. p.9.
5. 1851 England Census HO 107/2431 : Cumberland > Rockcliffe > District 11, Page 19.
6. 1861 England Census RG 9/3922 : Cumberland > Rockcliffe > Castletown > District 7, Page 8.
7. "Death Of Mrs. Cartner, Metal Bridge" : Fishing Gazette; November 4th, 1899. p.22.


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"A sad case of drowning occurred in the river Esk on Friday night Between seven and eight o'clock Alexander Wilkie and James Harkness, the unfortunate man, had been fishing the pool known as the Sheepwash below Burnfoot Farm from the north side. They were anxious to cross to the Longtown side for a nearer cut home. The water was pretty heavy, but anglers are in the habit of coming here, wading in a slanting direction. James Harkness, besides his own rod and creel, carried Alexander Wilkie's as the latter intended to carry another man on his back. While they were getting ready James Harkness entered the water and seemed to be going on all right. Just as Alexander Wilkie stepped into the river he missed his friend and shouted "Harkness is down the water." The stream immediately below the shallow is narrow, rapid, and deep. The unfortunate man was carried down this and nothing was seen but the rod tops sticking a few feet above water and the creels floating a few yards apart. Alexander Wilkie endeavoured to catch hold of the rod with a long stick, believing that James Harkness still kept hold of them, but failed. To have plunged into the deep black current would have been madness, but at Lynefoot, where the gravel bed begins, Mr. Wilkie went in as far as was consistent with safety, expecting to meet the rods and man. Nothing, however, was seen, and Alexander Wilkie at once ran to the Metal Bridge Inn and raised the alarm. His shouts for a boat had been previously heard at a distance, but no boats fit to breast the stream were to be got at the bridge. Mr. Budd, jun. [London], and John Little ran upstream, but nothing was seen. The news rapidly spread in Longtown and the estimation in which the deceased man was held was evinced by the general commotion and the number of volunteers in the search for the body. Alexander Wilkie and Police-Constable Robinson, Longtown, set off towards Lynefoot, and along with two sons of the deceased, looked in vain for any signs of the body's whereabouts, Meanwhile Sergeant Smith had been making all necessary arrangements in Longtown for a thorough search, and when day dawned, he and Harry Forster, an experienced waterman, landed at the Long Stream with a boat, ropes, etc. Major Irwin, too, sent his boat and shortly afterwards another from Netherby joined in the search. The search went on till nightfall, but nothing was discovered but James Harkness's rod, which was found among the rocks at Lynefoot by Joseph Jackson, the river watcher. The search was resumed on Sunday morning by daylight, and was continued yesterday without success. A reward of £10 is offered for the recovery of the body."
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"At Carlisle Assizes, today, the Judge sentenced two housebreakers, James Smith [35] and Albert Foster [32] to imprisonment for three months with hard labour for housebreaking at the King's Arms, Metal Bridge, and thefts of clothing at Shap. Both prisoners had long records, but Foster's last conviction was dated 1906. Both pleaded guilty, but Smith pleaded not guilty to a further charge that he was an habitual criminal. Police evidence was called to prove the charge, but his Lordship pointed out to counsel that the Act required proof that accused was habitually leading a dishonest or criminal life in addition to proof of three previous convictions. He directed the jury to return a verdict of "not guilty." With the remark: "The time of the Court has been wasted for half an hour."
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