In "The Funeral Pyre" in Dr. Thorndyke's Case-Book by R. Austin Freeman (1924), Thorndyke found a dental plate of a dead man by a gate at the crossing of a ditch, and he wanted to know whether he come through this gate or was he only passing it.

“We had better not make too many assumptions while we have so few facts,” said Thorndyke. He put down his case beside the gate, which guarded a bridge across a broad ditch, or drainage dyke, and opened his map.

“The question is,” said he, “did he come through this gate or was he only passing it? This dyke, you see, opens into the creek about three-quarters of a mile farther down. The probability is, therefore, that if he came up from the river across the marshes he would be on this side of the ditch and would pass the gate. But we had better try both sides. Let us leave our things by the gate and explore the ground for a few hundred yards, one on either side of the ditch. Which side will you take?”

I elected to take the side nearer the creek, and, having put my camera down by the research-case, climbed over the padlocked gate and began to walk slowly along by the side of the ditch, scanning the ground for foot-prints showing the impression of boot-protectors. At first the surface was far from favourable for imprints of any kind, being, like that immediately around the gate, covered with thick turf. About a hundred and fifty yards down, however, I came upon a heap of worm-casts on which was plainly visible the print of a heel with a clear impression of a kidney-shaped protector such as I had seen in the hut. Thereupon I hailed Thorndyke and, having stuck my stick in the ground beside the heel-print, went back to meet him at the gate.

“This is rather interesting, Jervis,” he remarked, when I had described my find. “The inference seems to be that he came from the creek—unless there is another gate farther down.

Was it common that the bridges of ditches or creeks had guarding gates in 1924?

I've searched for a photo that may show that, but I didn't find anything.

2 Answers 2


Some geographical context might be helpful. The scene of the crime is the North Kent Marshes:

“A shocking tragedy has come to light in a meadow about a mile from Dartford. About two o’clock this morning, a rural constable observed a rick on fire out on the marshes near the creek.”

R. Austin Freeman (1924). ‘The Funeral Pyre’. In The Blue Scarab, pp. 238–239. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.

The marshes between Dartford and the Thames have now largely been built on, and only a couple of small regions of marsh remain (the Crayford Marshes on the west side of the River Darent, and the Dartford Marshes on the east), but in the early 20th century this whole area was farmland. Here’s the 1910 Ordnance Survey 6-inch sheet showing the region between Dartford (centre left) and the Thames (top right). You can see a large expanse of marsh, labelled “Stone Marshes”, towards the top of the map. This is split into fields by a network of creeks (natural waterways) and dykes (drainage ditches), over which there are many foot-bridges, labelled “F.B.” Click on the map for a zoomable version.

The marshes were used for grazing cattle and sheep, and so the reason for putting a gate on the bridge was to prevent livestock from crossing the dyke. If the farmer ever needed to set livestock to graze in the field on one side of the dyke, but not the other, then the bridge needed to be closed off. In the story, the burned hay-rick indicated that the farmer had been hay-making in the field on one side of the bridge: a gate on the bridge leading to this field would have been necessary to prevent livestock from eating or trampling the hay.

Here’s a modern (2016) photo taken on the Cliffe Marshes, about fifteen miles east of Dartford, showing a foot-bridge over a creek (the Cliffe Fleet) with a gate at each end. The stiles suggest that the gates are left locked by the farmer and have to be climbed by walkers, just as in the story.

Photo by Chris Whippet, licensed CC-BY-SA.

  • 1
    Thank you so much for this comprehensive explanation, that's exactly what I searched for. Sep 27, 2020 at 20:04
  • 4
    This is indeed very common in low flat parts of the UK where animals graze - the drainage ditches act as field boundaries except at the crossing points, where gates are required
    – Chris H
    Sep 29, 2020 at 8:56

I don't know if it was common, but I suspect that it has happened. Let me point to my favourite occurence.

The Vajdahunyad Castle in the Budapest City Park is a modern castle built shortly before 1896, imitating the style of mediaeval castles of Hunyadi. It was first built as a hasty wooden structure so that it may be ready for the Millenium celebrations of 1896, but later rebuilt to stone and brick until 1908. The castle is currently home to a museum and some tourist attractions.

The castle is surrounded by a moat. This moat is partly connected to the lake of the City Park. The moat and the nearby ice skating rink has water only during the summer, when it can be navigated by small rowboats, a pastime advertised to lovers and tourists.

The moat has four bridges crossing it. The largest of them is the lion bridge that leads directly through the north front gate of the castle. I am, however, more interested in a small gate on the east side. This one is pedestrian-only, and is built from steel and concrete. This bridge has railings and a short two-winged gate made of cast iron that has now rusted so it's in a permanent half-open state.

Below is a modern photo that shows this gate, viewing from the Castle end. See also a photo from the opposite end. The bridge is visible on a photo dated 1900, so it was built before that, probably together with the castle, but on that photo, the bridge clearly does not have the gate yet. Aside from that, the bridge is insignificant enough that we can't track its history. I thus won't be able to tell you if the gate was there in 1929, but I suspect so.


There are other examples. The forest area called Lajosforrás, to the west of Szentendre, is a popular excursion place for us who live in Budapest, because it's approachable by car but remote enough from city noises. You usually arrive to Lajosforrás from the Szentendre side. There is a free parking lot here, after which cars are not allowed to continue without special permit. To discourage cars from entering, there is a barrier on a road bridge over a creek. The barrier consists of a single rail that opens upwards from a hinge on a side, so that cars with permit can enter, and is sometimes secured by a padlock. (The people who enter are mostly those who harvest wood, though the area is also used as a military shooting range.) I believe this counts as a gate for your purposes. Alas, I don't have a photo of this bridge, and this gate probably postdates 1929.

I think I've also seen such gates on bridges over small ditches that lead to private property, but I can't recall a specific example.


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