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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of Folly Bridge in Oxford

What is Folly Bridge?

Folly Bridge is a 19th-century stone bridge in Oxford that’s inspired many artists and writers.

folly bridge oxford

Folly Bridge History

The folly that gave this bridge its name no longer exists. In 1611, Thomas Waltham (also known as Thomas Welcome) added an extra floor to an existing guard tower on the 11th-century bridge in this location. The newly enlarged building became known as Welcome’s Folly – ‘folly’ in this sense not being a silly waste of time and effort but instead a descriptive term used for any ornamental building with no practical purpose. Although Welcome’s own name ceased to be associated with this location, his project is still commemorated today by the name Folly Bridge. Standing over the ancient Isis River (the local name for this part of the River Thames), a pedestrian on the bridge can look east, towards the university college boathouses, or at some of the charming waterside cafés and restaurants.

The modern bridge was built in the 1820s by a relatively obscure architect, Ebenezer Perry, to replace a much older construction as, originally, this area was part of a great causeway over the water meadows. This path, supported by over 40 arches, kept travellers’ feet dry as they came and went along what is now the route of the Abingdon Road.

This was no ordinary place, however, for it soon became the residence of the famous scholar, scientist, philosopher and alchemist Roger Bacon. He was a Franciscan monk whose scholarly pursuits and scientific experiments turned him after his death circa 1292 into a near-legendary figure, reputed to have been a wizard who created, with demonic assistance, a magical head made of bronze that was able to answer any question. For centuries afterwards his room in the tower became a place of pilgrimage for tourists and scientists. The diarist Samuel Pepys made a special visit there in 1669, recording: ‘So, to Friar Bacon's study: I up and saw it, and gave the man a shilling... Oxford [a] mighty fine place’.

The tower and original 11th-century bridge, sadly, no longer survive. After giving delight to many curious sightseers, the tower was removed in 1779 to make room for a wider road and the bridge was replaced a few decades later. This, however, was not the end of interest in such a beautiful spot. On Folly Island, the small stretch of land between the two banks of the river, you’ll notice a delightful castellated house, adorned with curious statues and railings. This was built in 1849 for the eccentric accountant Joseph Caudwell. Perhaps the architect wanted to create his own folly in homage to Thomas Welcome.

And Folly Bridge continued to inspire inventive minds long after Bacon’s study had gone. The artist J. M. W. Turner, while still only twelve years old, painted Folly Bridge and Bacon’s Tower from an engraving, a few years after the demolition. Fittingly, it was at Folly Bridge too, on a boating trip, that the story later to become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland originated.

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