The weir and the flowing earthworks of Bedford
British Archaeology: The Voice of Archaeology in Britain and Beyond, Issue 121, Nov/Dec (2011)
When people in medieval times looked at urban rivers, they saw something different from what we see today. The picturesque scene with pleasant walks along embankment promenades, past riverside gardens and ornamental bridges was a creation of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. No, what the medieval eye saw was more basic, more elemental. The river was seen and experienced, amongst other things, as a great flow of energy moving slowly and inexorably through the town.
It was a flow of energy, moreover, that could be harnessed and put to use. In many proto-urban towns throughout Britain, from at least the seventh or eighth centuries AD (the date of Saxon mills at Old Windsor and Tamworth), mills were built next to the river – larger than those on small streams out in the country. Artificial watercourses were cut to serve as headraces and tailraces, taking flow of water from the river and back again. In some cases, massive stone weirs were placed across the river to create a head of water to power the mills. These were such important features – so vital to the urban economy – that towns like Warwick, Ware and Wareham were actually named after their weirs.