The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 6

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Stone bridge arch The massive wooden scaffolding for what would eventually become the Bridge to Lyndesfarne was still under construction. The scaffolding was a complex framework of huge beams and timbers, their assembly itself a great work of engineering. It was made especially difficult since it was not possible to support the framework in the centre, where the Two Worlds met, since this was the very point where the waters were, quite literally, immeasurably deep. This was all the more impressive in the knowledge that this was strictly a temporary structure, to be removed a few years later when the stonework of the Bridge was complete.

Jean-Luc stopped from his labours for a moment, and considered the events which had brought him to the site of the bridge. He had been fascinated by what he had seen and heard in the Forbidden Caves. The reply to his letter to Maman had not been able to shed any light on what had happened, and it had taken a good deal of assiduous work in the public libraries in Reims and Epernay for Jean-Luc to finally learn that Lyndesfarne was a place, an obscure little island off the north-east coast of England, apparently once the home of some secretive sect of monks.

He made all kinds of enquiries locally, making a distinct nuisance of himself in the local marketplaces and taverns in the Champagne region. No-one he found was able, or at least willing, to shed any light on the mysterious events he had witnessed. Nor was there any sign of the working men with the strange accents that he had seen labouring in the tunnels. All he could discover was that the strangers had apparently disappeared on the same day that he had witnessed what he concluded was a deliberate destruction of the passageway. Finally, he had decided that his only chance of discovering more about the mysterious goings-on was to visit this nearly forgotten island.

It had taken Jean-Luc two years to reach the point on the English coastline where the long causeway stretched out to the island known as Lyndesfarne. He had made his way from his home in Epernay, first to Paris and then on to Calais, mostly on foot and occasionally hitching a lift on a farm cart. He had had little money and had therefore found it necessary to break off his journey at frequent intervals, taking casual labouring jobs as he could find them, and sleeping rough in barns and outhouses when clement weather made it possible or lodging in the cheapest of inns when it was not.

On his arrival in Calais, Jean-Luc found work in the area around the docks, working as a porter loading and unloading the ships, or serving in the bars and taverns in the vicinity. He even managed to pick up a smattering of English from the sailors and crew although, as he would later realise, he had acquired an eclectic vocabulary containing many words the meaning of which his mother would definitely not have approved.

Eventually, he managed to save enough money to pay his way across the English Channel as a passenger in steerage. His arrival in Dover in the damp depths of winter was something of a shock; alone in a strange country with no friends, little money and a limited grasp of the language, it took some time for him to find his feet. However, his travels had given Jean-Luc an ability to form casual acquaintances easily, and it was not long before he was able to acquire a variety of odd jobs to replenish his funds. As spring turned to summer, he resumed his itinerant lifestyle and made his way north, labouring on the land and walking the old back roads much as he had done the previous year in France.

By the time that Jean-Luc reached the crossing to Lyndesfarne, the stone piers to support the arches were already in place and the caissons which had been constructed to keep the waters at bay had been removed. The scaffolding upon which the stonework was to be laid was all but complete, the complex structures of the timbers, skilfully jointed, were being re-enforced by the fitting of the last few of the cross-bracing timbers. At the same time, numerous cranes and derricks were being constructed, using the same approach of cross-braced timbers held together with slotted and pegged joints.

All the noise and bustle and raucous cries were both clearly audible and visible to Jean-Luc from the vantage-point of a low rise close to the end of the causeway. After his seemingly endless journey, he was obscurely relieved to see that there was at least something going on at the place associated with the name he had heard so long ago, under such strange circumstances. He had been overwhelmingly dedicated to solving this riddle, displaying a level of commitment to assuage his curiosity which, whenever he considered it, seemed like a noble quest, an adventure from the bedtime stories his Maman used to tell him.

Being a resourceful young man, Jean-Luc had gained numerous skills during his peregrinations and he was soon able to find a foreman who was willing to engage him to work on the bridge. He was hard at work the very next day, toiling to and fro carrying the heavy timbers or hauling on ropes under the instructions of the foremen, or aiding the unloading of the heavy stone blocks from ox-drawn carts. Jean-Luc found it was familiar enough work, and gave his eyes time to watch and his mind an opportunity to cogitate even while his body laboured.

He found a place to stay in a nearby inn - a large and rambling establishment clearly prospering from the presence of so many men working up a thirst during the day, and having the copper to spend on beer to slake that thirst in the evenings. Jean-Luc, who privately preferred to drink his beer heavily watered-down, found himself nursing his pint many an evening, in all of the taverns and public houses in the area, listening to tales and fables of all kinds.

Jean-Luc still struggled with the language, and the many and varied accents of its native speakers, but it slowly became clear that there was more to this bridge than merely linking an insignificant little island to the mainland of Britain. With much diligent listening and a few carefully-chosen questions, he was eventually able to pick up some hints as to the nature of the Lyndesfarne crossing, although much of what he heard seemed either impossible or contradictory.

What was clear was there was a careful demarcation of the labourers quartered on this side of the bridge and the workers on the island. The two groups never met, even when working in the very centre of the middle arch. When blocks of stone needed to be laid, a team from the mainland side under the direction of an Overseer would be directed to undertake the work. When completed, the entire group would leave, to be replaced by a similar team from the other side.

Jean-Luc eventually became regarded as both skilled and trustworthy enough to be included in these parties, and was able to take a closer look at the construction of the other half of the bridge, the part that was out of bounds. On one of these occasions, he had caught sight of the plans held by the Overseers. He could imagine it would be a wondrous construction when completed, a marvel of the modern world.

All this work was undertaken under watchful eyes of the men he had heard called Guardians, silent and armed guards whose very presence made it impossible to slip over to the other side. Jean-Luc had also heard rumours of other, more secretive, Watchers as well: mysterious men in dark robes and hoods who would appear as if by magic in impossible places on the island and the mainland, stand motionlessly for minutes apparently inspecting the work on the bridge before disappearing again. The Watchers were supposed to see all, although Jean-Luc never caught a definitive sighting of one, although he did occasionally get that curious sense of being watched, as if eyes were burning into the back of his head, but there was never anyone visible when he turned around to look.

The assembly of the arches was a precise and delicate operation, although the masonry itself was monumentally heavy. Each stone block had to be measured and cut exactly at, Jean-Luc had learned, several quarries nearby. This involved many hours of back-breaking labour with saws and chisels and hammers, as well as a variety of other hand tools. The cut blocks were loaded onto wagons and transported on these wooden carts along the rough roads from the quarries and then along the causeway. The wagons were normally pulled by oxen; while an ox was not capable of moving very fast, a team could move up to four tons of cut stone at two miles an hour.

The order in which the blocks were assembled was very important to ensure a manageable level of stress on the wooden scaffolding and on the other blocks already in place, so that it did not collapse. Eventually, of course, the scaffolding would be removed and the arches would become self-supporting. In Roman times, so Jean-Luc had heard it told, the architect of a bridge was made to stand under the main arch when the wooden scaffolding was removed. This was understandably supposed to make sure that the architect did his job well.

The task of adding the cut stone blocks on the mainland side was stupendous. Each building block was winched on hemp ropes with block and tackle, the ropes tightened with winch and ratchet and the use of great labour. The cranes and derricks themselves were fabricated from heavy timbers, carefully jointed and held in place with wooden pegs set in holes which were individually drilled - the same approach which had been used for the scaffolding that currently supported the arches. There were no iron nails used at all in the construction of either derricks or scaffolding. Of course, the tools used by the craftsmen and masons contained a great of iron, but all of the workmen were encouraged to make sure that nothing made of iron was left on the bridge when the work for that day was completed.

As each block was made ready to be lowered into place, mortar would be added by a quick-witted and quick-limbed lad. The mortar itself was made from locally-fired quicklime from lime kilns along the coast, combined with fine sand and water. In earlier times, Jean-Luc had made several visits to a working lime kiln. The kiln was loaded with chalk quarried nearby, and heated to the high temperatures required using coal imported from Newcastle by ship to Seahouses, which was the closest deepwater seaport.

The mortar also used to hold in place a latticework of wrought iron bars that were, Jean-Luc had been told, intended to reinforce the masonry arches once completed. The stout ironworks stopped at the centre of the bridge. Although he had no way of being sure, there appeared to be no corresponding reinforcement in the other part of the construction.

The approach to bridge construction on the island side was perhaps less laborious than the approach on the mainland, but probably rather more time-consuming. Jean-Luc could only observe the work from a distance but, on the Lyndesfarne side, a strange floating platform had been created which seemed to manoeuvre over the scaffolding supporting the cut blocks from above. Somehow, the flying platform picked up the vast cut stone pieces as if grasped by an invisible giant hand. The stone block, now impossibly supported in mid-air, was moved very slowly - usually, just pushed by hand - over the partially completed masonry.

The precise positioning of each block took hours, as it seemed to hang in the air just above its final position. Mortar was spread over the area where the stone was to be laid then, after a frantic series of gestures by the individual Jean-Luc had heard called the Master Builder, it was finally lowered into place. Over a period of a day or so, as the mortar dried (or perhaps this was just a coincidence), the stonework gradually came alive with a strange kind of light. Somehow, inside the stonework, there were numerous orange sparkles which, when observed directly, would appear stationary, but when glimpsed from the corner of the eye would appear to dance and shimmer as if in constant movement.

All of the building work appeared to Jean-Luc to be causing some disruption to the commercial traffic still carried by boats across the straits to the island. There was a degree of conflict between the builders and the carters, and the ferrymen who operated the small fleet, often breaking out into shouts and abuse, and the occasional scuffle as the different priorities of the various groups generated frictions or antagonised differences of opinion or background.

For much of the time during daylight hours, travellers and Messengers were boarding at the piers, close to the supports for the minor arches now under construction. However, there were few goods being transferred, just a few heavy man-packs; it was simply not possible for animals or vehicles to cross at all. Jean-Luc realised that there must be some expectation of a considerable increase in traffic between island and mainland. Otherwise, he mused, he could not imagine what the justification could be for the expense and effort of the construction of the bridge.


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