An historic Dorset bridge which features in famous literature by Thomas Hardy has partially collapsed. 

Wool Bridge, a Grade II listed structure which crosses the River Frome in Wool, Purbeck, partially collapsed yesterday afternoon as its bricks crumbled into the river below. 

A cordon has been set up around the affected area and people are being warned to avoid the area completely. 

It is unclear at this stage what caused the bridge to collapse, however it was reported that a crack in the bridge had developed over the Christmas period. 

Cllr Peter Wharf, county councillor for north west Purbeck, said: "It's a very sad sight because it is a particularly beautiful bridge. It's very important.

"There are some very visible cracks in the bridge and because of that, Dorset County Council has sent engineers out. 

"They have closed it and provided a footpath nearby. It hasn't been open to traffic for a while, so it is reasonably safe. We're going to prevent pedestrians from walking over it and going near it as much as we can.

"We don't understand what's caused it, because there has been no traffic going over it for a few years. We'll be taking every step to make sure it is safe, and that it is fixed."

According to Historic England, Wool Bridge is the best preserved Elizabethan bridge in Dorset which dates back to the 16th century. 

The historic crossing is linked with Woolbridge Manor, also a Grade II listed building, both of which feature in Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Alan Browne, a Wool resident, said: "It certainly goes back many years. It is sad to see that it has got into this state.

"They used to use the bridge when they took take tanks from Bovington to Wool Station during the war. The bridge has been closed for traffic for some time.

"To see some of the bridge in the river was a shame."

Dorset County Council said it was informed of an issue with the bridge last Thursday morning. Following an inspection that afternoon, it found that part of the wall foundation had been washed away.

A county council spokesman said: "We continued to monitor the bridge with little change until this morning when part of the wall has slumped into the river. This is not affecting the arches of the bridge.

"To protect from further erosion to the walls and to prevent damage to the arches we will have a crane in position next Friday to place large bags of aggregate into the river. There will be some clearance work on Thursday to enable the crane to get in the right spot. 

"The longer term plan for repair will be to wait until summer when the conditions are better."