Right in the centre of the city, there has been a crossing of the River Witham on the site of High Bridge at least since the Roman occupation in the 1st century AD, with Ermine Street probably supported on a timber bridge, or crossing the river by a simple ford - or both.
It is unique in England as the only bridge carrying 16th century buildings, and one of only three historic bridges carrying buildings at all, the others being Robert Adam’s 1773 Pulteney Bridge in Bath and Frome Bridge in Frome, Somerset.
The first stone bridge was built c1160, possibly replacing one of timber, and may have extended further north and south at this time, while on its east side the street sloped down and across the ford. This was covered over c1235 by a massive platform to support a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket. Small chapels on bridges were not uncommon in medieval England.
The present row of shops (207-210 High Street) was built c1550 on a new western extension and has had many uses over the centuries.
The chapel was removed in 1762/3 with a stone obelisk containing a public water conduit erected in the same position. Perhaps as part of the same programme of works, a large vaulted room was constructed within the slope on the north side of the bridge, and the road laid above it. It may be that the river was directly accessible from the vaults for the unloading and storage of goods. Between the vaults and the properties on the east side of High Street (now no. 302), the footway descended by steps around the corner into Waterside North, with little footbridges across from the roadway to the shops on the east side. The vaults still remain sealed below the road surface.
The west side was further extended c.1800 to create annexes for the shops, but this small projection was removed during the 1902 restoration.
There was a further eastern extension c1863 when men’s “pissoir” urinals were erected behind the obelisk. At the same time the obelisk was restored and a drinking fountain added.
The wholesale restoration of the shops took place in 1902/3 under the supervision of Lincoln architect William Watkins, and the small west bridge extension removed, together with the eastern walkway.
Finally, with concerns about the excessive weight, the obelisk was removed in 1939, to be recreated and placed in St Mark’s retail park in 1996.
The unique features of the underside of the bridge can only be appreciated by boat, but the interior of some of the restored buildings can be enjoyed by shoppers, or over a coffee or cream tea.