River Ouse & River Foss, York England

Rivers and Bridges Audio Guides

River Ouse, River Foss and Bridges Audio Guide

York Rivers and Bridges Quick Facts

  • York has two rivers that meet in the city centre. These rivers are the Ouse (the widest) and the Foss (the narrowest).
  • The River Ouse has three main road/pedestrian bridges in the city centre, Skeldergate Bridge (close to Clifford’s Tower), Ouse Bridge the most central and Lendal Bridge (close to Museum Gardens). Another pedestrian footway is found at Scarborough Railway Bridge which is currently being improved for cycles and pedestrians.
  • Ouse comes from the Keltic word Ousos possibly meaning slow moving river.
  • Foss derives from the Latin word fossa which means stream.
  • At Lendal and Skeldergate Bridges, or at least close to them, great chains were spanned across the river to prevent invaders and also to ensure vessels paid their taxes. St Mary’s Abbey also had a chain-toll system too between Scarborough Railway Bridge and Lendal Bridge.

York’s Rivers Ouse, Foss and their Bridges in More Detail

River Ouse 

The River Ouse is the largest of York’s two rivers that meet close to Skeldergate Bridge.  The name Ouse comes from Keltic “Ousos” possibly meaning slow moving river.  It has a browny looking colour obviously due to the soil type on which it flows. You can venture the Ouse on open top tour boats or hire small private boats to explore this historic river.  The River Ouse empties into the North Sea after forming the Humber Estuary at Kingston Upon Hull, a confluence of a variety of rivers including the Ouse and Foss that meet at York. 

Willow Trees overhang the River Ouse at the northern side of the city.
Willow Trees overhang the River Ouse at the northern side of the city.

River Foss 

The River Foss is the smaller of the two rivers. It is believed to have received its name from the latin “fossa” of which definition is stream.  Once upon a time there was commercial traffic on this river but this no longer is the case. In 1792 it was made into a canal in the city centre.  Instead, both rivers in modern times are occupied by pleasure boats.

The River Foss meets the Ouse close to Skeldergate Bridge.
The River Foss meets the Ouse close to Skeldergate Bridge.

Lendal Bridge

This Victorian Bridge was built between 1861 and 1863 designed by William Dredge and serves as one of the three road bridges in the city centre, along with Skeldergate Bridge and Ouse Bridge. Prior to the bridge, a ferry service existed between the cone shaped tower, Barker Tower, and Lendal Tower, the rectangular tower, at the opposite side.  The idea of the bridge came about in 1838 but a dispute existed between the railway companies and the Corporation of York, since the ferry was transporting passengers to the old terminus railway station aforementioned.  Sadly, in 1861 the bridge collapsed in construction and five men were killed. Remarkably, the collapsed bridge was reconstructed but not in York, it serves as Valley Bridge in Scarborough.

The cone shaped tower you see next to the bridge is Barker’s Tower.  It served as part of the city’s defences when a chain was stretched across the river to prevent ships from entering the city.  It also prevented ships from leaving without paying their taxes.  Barker Tower used to serve as the ferryman’s cottage.

Lendal Bridge with Lendal Tower behind on the right side bank.
Lendal Bridge with Lendal Tower behind on the right side bank.

From Lendal Bridge you can see The Guildhall. It was originally built in 1445 but sadly it was rebuilt after being damaged during an air raid in World War II.  It was built for the Guild of St Christopher and St John Corporation.

On the same side as Barker Tower but directly across the river stands Lendal Tower, built in 1299 at the time of Richard I.  Like Barker Tower is served as part of the city’s defences. Interestingly, it was leased to the York Waterworks Company in 1677 for 1 peppercorn per year for 500 years! Today it is a private home since 2010. 

Skeldergate Bridge

Skeldergate Bridge links Clifford’s Tower and Castle Museum area to Bishophill where the Bishops Wharfe luxury riverside apartments now stand. It was designed by George Gordon Page and built in 1878 to 1881.  The first arch once was a toll house and the bridge opened up for tall ships to pass through. This bridge was declared toll free as the sign suggests, back in 1914.  This is now a grade 2 listed building. 

Skeldergate Bridge, River Ouse, York England
Skeldergate Bridge, River Ouse, York England

St Georges Field 

St Georges Field resides close to Skeldergate Bridge, between the rivers Foss and the Ouse.  It is here where there used to be a ducking stool. A person could be “ducked” for being a witch, brewing terrible ale or even being a wife who nags her husband.

Ouse Bridge 

Residing on Bridge Street is the oldest of the bridges in York built in 1521 that supersedes older bridges that date as far back as the Viking era.  The original bridge over the River Ouse in the city, the medieval Ouse bridge, had become somewhat cluttered with shops and houses.  After the reformation it was converted into apartments.  After a sudden thaw in the winter of 1564 the bridge collapsed with the death of 12 people.  This allowed for a new bridge to open in 1566 with five arches but it is not the bridge we see today.  This bridge replaced the former in 1821 after a decade of building it.

Ouse Bridge, River Ouse, York England
Ouse Bridge, River Ouse, York England