Ford (crossing)

A ford is a shallow place with good footing where a river or stream may be crossed by wading, or inside a vehicle getting its wheels wet.[1] A ford may occur naturally or be constructed. Fords may be impassable during high water. A low water crossing is a low bridge that allows crossing over a river or stream when water is low but may be covered by deep water when the river is high.

Rawney Ford on the Bothrigg Burn, a tributary of the White Lyne in Cumbria, England.
RelatedNone, but akin to causeway
DescendantNone, but akin to step-stone bridge
Span rangeShort
MaterialUsually none (natural, preexisting), but sometimes supplemented with concrete or asphalt for vehicles.
Design effortNone or low
Falsework requiredNo
Crossing the Red River near Granite, Oklahoma in 1921
Crossing the Milkhouse ford through Rock Creek in 1960
A ford next to a bridge that can only support 1.5 tonnes in Aufseß, Germany


A ford is a much cheaper form of river crossing than a bridge, but it may become impassable after heavy rain or during flood conditions. A ford is therefore normally only suitable for very minor roads (and for paths intended for walkers and horse riders etc.). Most modern fords are usually shallow enough to be crossed by cars and other wheeled or tracked vehicles (a process known as "fording"). Fords may be accompanied by stepping stones for pedestrians.

The UK has more than 2,000 fords and most do not have any way of stopping vehicles from crossing when the water makes them impassable.[2] According to The AA, many flood-related vehicle breakdowns are at fords.[2]

In New Zealand, fords are a normal part of major roads, including, until 2010, along State Highway 1 on the South Island's east coast.[3] As most inter-city domestic passengers travel by air and as much cargo goes by sea, long-distance road traffic is low and fords are thus a practical necessity for crossing seasonal rivers. In dry weather, drivers become aware of a ford by crunching across outwash detritus on the roadway. A bailey bridge may be built off the mainline of the road to carry emergency traffic during high water.

At places where the water is shallow enough, but the material on the riverbed will not support heavy vehicles, fords are sometimes improved by building a submerged concrete floor. In such cases, a curb (kerb) is often placed on the downstream side to prevent vehicles from slipping off, as the growth of algae will often make the slab very slippery. Fords may be also equipped with a post indicating the water depth, so that users may know if the water is too deep to attempt to cross. Some have an adjacent footbridge so that pedestrians may cross dryshod.

Fords were sometimes the only way to cross, such as at the Milkhouse at Rock Creek in Washington, DC, but the regular use of this ford has been superseded by bridges.[4] The crossing remained for "adventurous" drivers until 1996 when the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles.[5]


A road running below the water level of a stream or river is often known as a "watersplash". It is a common name for a ford or stretch of wet road in some areas, and sometimes also used to describe tidal crossings. They have become a common feature in rallying courses. There are enthusiasts who seek out and drive through these water features, recording details (such as wave created, position, and access) on dedicated websites.[6]

There are many old fords known as watersplashes in the United Kingdom. Examples are at Brockenhurst in Hampshire, Wookey in Somerset, and Swinbrook in Oxfordshire. Some of these are being replaced by bridges as these are a more reliable form of crossing in adverse weather conditions.

The Dean Ford in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, is mentioned in the deeds of Dean Castle, which was gifted to the local people. The ford has had to be maintained as a property boundary feature, despite several cars a year being washed away.

Some very spectacular watersplashes can be found in diverse locations. Australia has the Gulf Savannah, and others may be found in Canada, Italy, South Africa, and Finland. They are also found on some Tennessee backroads, where they are referred to as "underwater bridges".

In Israel and part of the British areas under the mandate a low water crossing or watersplash had been known as "Irish bridge"[7] in reference to the Anglo–Irish war.[8][9]


The names of many towns and villages are derived from the word 'ford'. Examples include Oxford (a ford where oxen crossed the river: see the Oxford coat of arms); Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire (the ford where harts cross or "deer crossing"); Ammanford (a ford on the River Amman); Staffort crossing the river Pfinz; and Stratford (a ford on a Roman road). Similarly, the German word Furt (as in Frankfurt, the ford of the Franks; Ochsenfurt, synonymous to Oxford; Schweinfurt, a ford where swine crossed the river; and Klagenfurt, literally "ford of complaints") and the Dutch voorde (as in Vilvoorde, Coevorden, Zandvoort, or Amersfoort) are cognates with the same meaning, all deriving from Proto-Indo-European *pértus 'crossing'. This is the source of Brythonic and Gaulish ritus (modern Welsh rhyd; the Welsh name of Oxford is Rhydychen "ford of oxen"), which underlies such names as Chambord (from Gaulish *Camboritum "ford at the bend") and Niort (Novioritum "new ford").

Towns such as Maastricht, Dordrecht, and Utrecht also formed at fords. The endings tricht, drecht, and trecht are derived from the Latin word traiectum, meaning "crossing". Thus the name Utrecht, originally the Roman fort of Traiectum, is derived from "Uut Trecht", meaning "downstream crossing". The Afrikaans form was taken into South African English as drift and led to place names like Rorke's Drift and Velddrift. Similarly, in Slavic languages, the word brod comes from the linguistic root that means "river-crossing" or "place where a river can be crossed". Although today "brod" in the Croatian language means "ship", Slavonski Brod in Croatia, as well as Makedonski Brod in North Macedonia and other place names containing "Brod" in Slavic countries, where "brod" is still the word for ford, are named after fords.

Famous battles

The Battle of Rorke's Drift in the Anglo-Zulu war

In historic times, positioning an army in large units close to a river was thought best for direct defense as well as to attack the enemy at any crossing points.[10] Therefore, a ford was often a strategic military point with many famous battles were fought at or near fords.

  • Battle of Xiaoyao Ford, 215–217, during the wars at the end of the Han dynasty in China
  • Battle of Fulford, 1066, on the Ouse River during Harald Hardrada's invasion of England
  • Battle of Jacob's Ford, 1179, on the Jordan River during the period between the Second and Third Crusade
  • Battle of Imjin River, 1592, on the Imjin River during the Japanese invasion of Korea
  • Battle of the Yellow Ford, 1598, on the Blackwater River during the Nine Years' War in Ireland
  • Battle of Newburn Ford, 1640, on the Tyne River during the Second Bishops' War in Scotland
  • Battle of the Boyne, 1690, on the Boyne River during the Williamite-Jacobite War in Ireland
  • Battle of Matson's Ford, 1777, on the Schuylkill River during the Philadelphia campaign of the American Revolutionary War in Pennsylvania
  • Battle of Brandywine, 1777, on Brandywine Creek during the Philadelphia campaign of the American Revolutionary War in Pennsylvania
  • Battle of Minisink, 1779, on the Delaware River during the Northern theater of the American Revolutionary War in New York
  • Battle of Cowan's Ford, 1781, on the Catawba River during the Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War in North Carolina
  • Battle of Assaye, 1803, on the Kalina River during the Second Anglo-Maratha War in India
  • Battle of Blackburn's Ford, 1861, on Bull Run Creek during the Manassas campaign of the American Civil War in Virginia
  • Battle of Kelly's Ford, 1863, on the Rappahannock River during the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War in Virginia
  • Battle of Buffington Island, 1863, on the Ohio River during Morgan's Raid in the American Civil War in Ohio and West Virginia
  • Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, on the Rappahannock River during the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War in Virginia
  • Battle of Byram's Ford, 1864, on the Blue River during Price's Missouri Expedition in the American Civil War in Missouri
  • Battle of Morton's Ford, 1864, on the Rapidan River during the American Civil War in Virginia
  • Battle of Rorke's Drift, 1879, on the Buffalo River during the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa
  • Battle of Cut Knife, 1885, on the North Saskatchewan River during the North-West Rebellion in Canada

In fiction

  • Achilles Fights the River, Trojan War, as found in The Illiad, by Homer, Book 21, line 1
  • The Defence of Duffer's Drift, 1900
  • First Battle of the Fords of Isen, February 25, 3019 (Third Age of Middle-earth)
  • Second Battle of the Fords of Isen, March 2, 3019 (Third Age of Middle-earth)

See also

  • Causeway
  • Stepping stones


  1. Thompson, Della, ed. (1995). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Ninth ed.). Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-861320-6.
  2. "Crossing A Ford: They're not always safe to cross – here's how to play it safe". 18 January 2017. Retrieved 24 December 2020.
  3. "End of the road for last traffic fords left on State Highway 1". Media statement. NZTA, Christchurch Regional Office. 28 December 2015. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  4. "Milkhouse Ford, Washington, District of Columbia, DC". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Retrieved 24 December 2020.
  5. Fidler, Eric (8 January 2015). "Hidden clues reveal an old road that disappeared from DC". Greater Greater Washington. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  6. "An online guide to every UK ford, watersplash and tidal road". Retrieved 2011-09-23.
  7. The Be'er sheva ford was officially called Irish bridge
  8. Yehuda Ziv - מורשת דרך- the sources of the "Irish bridges"
  9. explanations about the source of the term Irish bridge
  10. For example in On War: von Clausewitz, Carl. "Defense of Rivers and Streams" (PDF). Retrieved 24 December 2020 via University of Missouri-Rolla.
  11. "Coming Through The Rye, Scottish Country Dance Instructions". .Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  12. "Stanhope Ford's permanent closure approved". BBC News. 21 February 2012. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  13. Tehrani, Zoe (19 January 2020). "A guide to the circular Brockenhurst village walk". She walks in England. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
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