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Our Lady Collegiate church in Vernon
A whole site dedicated to this monumeent (in English)
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Vernon half-timbered houses
A whole site about our numerous old houses (In French only, sorry !)
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Vernon Giverny Website auf deutsch

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Pass the mouse over the photos for further information
The Old Mill in Vernon
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Monet's house and garden at Giverny
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The XIIth c. castle keep in Vernon
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Visits, indeed, but there are so many other things to do in Vernon
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Walking and cycling around Vernon
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Museums in Vernon (paintings by Monet) and Giverny
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A walk in the streets of Giverny
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The water lily pond at Giverny
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Tourelles castle in Vernon
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The river bridges in Vernon

 



The existence of a city bridge over a river difficult to cross has often led to the development of the town since it became an obliged passage at the crossing of the road along the river and of the one that crosses it. This is what happened to Vernon, a city founded in 920 but which became a strategic location when the king of France and the king of England, also Duke of Normandy, opposed one another as soon as the early 12th century.
According to some historians - but others do not agree - it seems that there would have been a first bridge as early as 1125, when Henry I of England had the town fortified . If this bridge ever existed, it must have been a light wooden structure, no traces of which still remain today.


Vernon and its bridge in the 16th c.

The medieval bridge

The bridge in 1845,betwen the island and Vernonnet
We owe King Philip II (known in France as Philippe Auguste) the building of the first stone bridge, important remains of which can still be seen on the right bank.

It may be necessary to recall the historic context briefly: At war with the English king, Richard I Lionhearted who also reigns over the western half of France, King Philip takes hold of some Anglo-Norman territories lying between Gisors (about 30 km North of Vernon) and Pacy-sur-Eure (10km South). In order to be able to defend these lands, he has a bridge built in Vernon so as to be able to move his troops easily. However, a bridge is also a very strategic place in a time when there are very few bridges : in Normandy, there exist only two in Pont de l'Arche and Rouen; on the French side there are also only two bridges between Vernon and Paris.

 
Because of its strategic importance, the king heavily protected the bridge: at one end, there was the town surrounded by walls and its castle - from which still remains the keep, called Archive Tower. On the other bank there was a fortified bridgehead (today Tourelles Castle) and, on Talus island which also bears the bridge, a fortified tower completed the defence system. (The whole system can easily be observed on the print above showing Vernon in the 16th century.


Fortified tower on Talus Island (Modern drawing by A.G. Poulain done using old documents.)

The remnants of the bridge and the bridgehead that protected it from the north

 

The bridge was also an economic opportunity for the city that developed at the cross-roads of the East -West Paris - Rouen road and the North - South road, all the more as hardly had the bridge been built that it lost its military interest: as a matter of fact, in 1204 the whole of Normandy had become French and war withdrew from the district for a century and a half. King Philip, as was always done at the time, sold the rights to set up watermills and fisheries on the bridge. Soon five mills were built, two on the Vernonnet bank; i.e. the right bank (including the one that can still be seen today) and three on the Vernon side.

 

The bridge used to rest on 25 arches (each of them, 10 or 12 metre wide) but we know that for centuries neither royal nor local authorities were able to maintain large civil engineering works such as this bridge properly; They were used until they were on the verge of collapsing, when intense repair work was then necessary. This is how the stone arches were gradually replaced by a superstructure made of wood resting on the piers. In 1830, there remained only eight stone arches (the ones supporting the mills).


The bridge around 1850, between Talus Island and Vernon. Notice the mills and on the piers (the only ones that were correctly maintained)
and the the stone pier-heads that protected the former against everything that a river can bring down during floods.


Most of the piers, lacking maintenance, were often swept away by floods and the bridge was thus useless for several years. A ferry service would then ply between the two banks. (Do not think that this was specific to Vernon: Rouen, the second largest town in France was not able to maintain its bridge in the 16th century and they had had to organise one of these ferry services.

This 19th c. print shows very well why the piers, if they were not properly maintained (as above)),
were unable to resist important floods.


For instance, in 1651, after two arches had collapsed, the authorities decided to abandon the bridge and set up a ferry, which, at least apparently, was thought to be far cheaper than repairing the bridge. Very well… but the vicar of Vernonnet wrote on October 10, 1653: "On Friday, St Luke's day, 200 persons of all sexes and ages coming from Vernon got accidentally drowned when the ferry sank down."

The bridge (right bank - Vernonnet side) before 1840, perhaps even before 1820

The bridge, in 1845, betwen the island and Vernonnet (right bank)

The three documents above clearly show how most of the stone arches had been replaced by a wooden roadway and that the whole structure was extremely fragile.

 
The fisheries were also accused of damaging the structure: as a matter of fact, the nets were fixed up with ropes that were tightened with small winches installed on the wood parapets of the bridge. The huge nets that were dipped in the water stream caused continuous vibrations that would shake the bridge so that these fisheries were forbidden in 1849.

The bridge was very low and the space under the arches was taken by the mill wheels and the fisheries so that sailing was a threat to boats. Only one arch, called the "sailing arch" - located on the Vernon side- was large enough to allow boats to sail under. Passing even this arch proved difficult. A civil engineer wrote in a report in 1812:" The current under the arch is so fast that this is where the utmost effort must be made in order to get through the cataract [!] while ensuring that every care is taken for the boat to keep exactly in the centre of the archway."

It was necessary to maintain about thirty tow horses and a hundred persons solely to enable the passage of the boats under the bridge. (Municipal directives in 1794).
Do not be surprised by such figures , they are not specific to Vernon: at Poses( 50 km downstream) at the same time 46 horses , 40 full-time persons (and a hundred more working part -time) were kept busy towing the boats.

Vernon and the bridge in 1845


Napoleon  bridge

After 1840, important works were undertaken all along the river to tame it and make sailing easier: the bed was dredged, parts straightened, some islands removed, sluices were built, compensating reservoirs were established. Before these works, the Seine was a wild, untamed river, like the Loire today : it was dotted with islands, shoals and mud flats sandbanks, with important floods in winter and very low water in summer. The old print at the top of the page clearly shows the islands and sand-banks that dotted the river bed.

This is also the moment to recall the legend of Saint Adjutor in the 12th century : the saint would have miraculously appeased a whirlpool in the Seine very near Vernon, thus saving the life of many bargemen. To this miracle, one can also add the one worked by Saint Romain in Rouen who would have killed a monster which sank craft on the river. These are pious legends, nevertheless they suggest that sailing conditions did not use to be what they are today!

However, all the works aimed at making navigation easier and enabling heavier and heavier boats to sail would have been useless, had the old bridge still remained - an obstacle across the river.

A new bridge was inaugurated in 1861. Work had started in 1858 and the bridge was built a few meters upstream from the old one, in order to gain better stability.

The bridge was composed of 7 arches; it was 253 m long and 10 m wide.
The 5 middle arches spanned 26 metres and the ones at each end 28 metres. The arch on the left bank (the Vernon side) was used for navigation with 22 metres for the boats and 6 metres for the tow-path.


General view of Vernon around 1900

Once the bridge was completed, the section between Vernon and the island of the old one was destroyed. Of course the three mill owners (on the 3rd, 4th and 5th arches) received pecuniary compensation. As to the section between the island and Vernonnet, it was left unused and fell into ruin except for a few arches and the Old Mill which today bear testimony to what the medieval bridge used to look like.

The two bridges together. Documents dated 1862/ 63.
[left] Napoléon Bridge seen from Vernonnet and farther back the medieval section that will be left unused. In prolongation of this section, one can see a mill that has not been pulled down yet on the Vernon bank.
[right] The remnants of the medieval bridge and the new one built behind (seen from the Vernon bank).

 

The medieval bridge as it is today with a picturesque mill perched on the piers

Moving the bridge a few metres from the old one meant transforming the streets and roads leading to the bridge. Thus several little streets in the city centre were straightened and extended so as to create a new access road. The city Council called it 'Albuféra Street' "as a token of the city's gratitude for his [the Duke's] distinguished services as a Mayor to the city for six years".

The City Council decided to call the bridge 'Clemenceau Bridge' in 1930. (Clemenceau was Prime Minister during World War I and his political sense and obstinacy did play a great part in the final victory.) He owned a country house at Bernouville, not very far from Vernon. He would often pay visits to Monet, a very close friend of his, whose impressionist art he defended against harsh criticisms. On his way to Giverny from Paris (where he was the manager of an important newspaper before becoming one of the main figures of French politics), he would leave the train at Vernon station and of course cross the bridge to go to his friend's. A local tradition says that he used to buy his tobacco at a tobacconist's just at the beginning of the bridge. Is this what determined the City Council's decision?

Clémenceau

 
Trials and misfortunes assailed the bridge.
Less than ten years after it had been built, during the Franco-Prussian war, on October 14, 1870, the French Engineer Corps blew it up in order to prevent Prussian cavalry that was approaching from crossing the river. In vain! Rebuilt two years later, it was destroyed again by the French in the hope of opposing the 1940 German invasion. In vain again… And this was the end of Napoléon or Clemenceau Bridge.


Temporary bridges

At first, the Germans set up a pontoon bridge that had to be dismantled on January 13, 1941 because there was too much floating ice on the river.
A foot-bridge was then installed as well as a ferry for vehicles. Because it was hanging from steel-cables, the foot-bridge was unreliable and people were afraid of using it. A man in charge of maintaining this bridge recalls :" This foot-bridge was our nightmare. We are now in a position to tell the public that the cables that held this bridge were not long enough to span the width of the river. We had been obliged to add to other cables which had had a smaller diameter and splice the former to the latter. Every morning, our first visit of the bridge was for these cables. Hadn't creeping occurred ? Fortunately it never did." (Le Démocrate - the local paper- in February 1947)

Then a real bridge was installed from Avril toJune 1941 and it was used until May 26, 1944 when the central section was destroyed by Allied bombings ( together with all the other bridges on the Seine between Paris and Rouen, so as to prevent - or at least to slow down - the coming of reinforcement troops on the future Normandy front.)


The 1941 temporary bridge


As early as 1945, a new temporary bridge was thrown. It was a Callender Hamilton-type bridge made up of long metal spans.

Callender Hamilton bridge set up in 1945


When it was decided to build the definitive bridge exactly where the temporary one was standing , new temporary piers had to be erected before shifting the Callender Hamilton bridge laterally onto them , so as to make room for the construction of the final bridge.

The Callender Hamilton bridge is being shifted laterally onto its new piers, thus enabling the building of the definitive bridge.

Today's Clemenceau Bridge

Built between 1950and 1954, it is made of steel trusses covered with a reinforced concrete slab. It is composed of three arches with two piers in the river, which made it possible to deepen the river channel for better water flow.
The 262m long bridge (202m being over the waterway) was manufactured by Forges et Ateliers du Creusot. The whole structure, weighing over 1.000 tons was transported on barges to Vernon.

The bridge opened to traffic in November 1954 was inaugurated by the Prime Minister in January 1955.


 

A new bridge ?

A new bridge ?

If the bridge itself is still able to carry today's traffic, its approaches are no longer able to do so and, at certain hours of the day, there are long lines of cars waiting on either side.
Several projects are being studied so as to build a second bridge somewhere in the neighbourhood of Vernon to reduce local traffic congestion.. But, as often happens, few are those who agree to the building of the future bridge and approaches near their own homes. Not in my backyard is the usual motto... "It'd be simpler, more economical and environmentally-friendly for the bridge to be built farther way...In the next village, but not in mine !" people keep saying.

Well then, when will there be a new bridge for us to be able to put a full stop on this page?



For more information about the medieval bridge and its surroundings today, you can refer to the 'Old Mill and Tourelles Castle' page or the August 1944, the Allied cross the river page .