A ford is a place in a watercourse (most commonly a stream or river) that is shallow enough to be crossed by wading, on horseback, or in a wheeled vehicle. A ford is mostly a natural phenomenon, in contrast to a low water crossing, which is an artificial bridge that allows crossing a river or stream when water is low.
The names of many towns and villages are derived from the word 'ford', for example Oxford (a ford where oxen crossed the river: see the Oxford coat of arms), or Stratford (a ford on a Roman road). Similarly, the German word Furt (as in Frankfurt and Klagenfurt) and the Dutch voorde, (as in Vilvoorde, Coevorden, Zandvoort, or Amersfoort) are cognates and have the same meaning. Towns such as Maastricht, Dordrecht, and Utrecht also formed at fords but the ending tricht, drecht, or trecht is derived from the Latin word traiectum, meaning "crossing". Similarly, in Slavic languages, word brod river-crossing comes from the linguistic root that means "" or "place where river can be crossed". Although today "brod" in Croatian language literally means "ship", Slavonski Brod in Croatia, as well as Makedonski Brod in Macedonia and other place names containing "Brod" in Slavic countries are named after fords.
A ford is a much cheaper form of river-crossing than a bridge but it may become impassable after heavy rain or during flood condition. A ford is therefore normally only suitable today for very minor roads. Most modern fords are shallow enough to be crossed by cars and other wheeled or tracked vehicles (a process known, fittingly, as "fording"). The problem about fords is that they overflow in wet weather. (see right).
At localities where the water is shallow enough, but the material on the riverbed will not support heavy vehicles, fords are sometimes improved by the provision of a submerged concrete floor. In such cases a curb is often placed on the downstream side to prevent vehicles slipping off, as growth of algae will often make the slab very slippery.
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.
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 considered to be a more reliable form of crossing in adverse weather conditions.
The Dean Ford in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, is significant as it is specifically mentioned in the deeds of this property, 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.
Not just a British phenomenon, some very spectacular versions of the watersplash feature 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". Indiana State Road 7 has such a ford near Dupont, Indiana. It was an important location in Morgan's Raid.
Because in historic times a ford was often a strategic military point, many famous battles were fought at or near fords.
- Battle of Jacob's Ford, 1179
- Battle of Imjin River, 1592
- Battle of the Yellow Ford, 1598
- Battle of Newburn Ford, 1640
- Battle of the Boyne, 1690
- Battle of Matson's Ford, 1777
- Battle of Brandywine, 1777
- Battle of Minisink, 1779
- Battle of Cowan's Ford, 1781
- Battle of Assaye, 1803
- Battle of Blackburn's Ford, 1861
- Battle of Kelly's Ford, 1863
- Battle of Buffington Island, 1863
- Battle of Byram's Ford, 1864
- Battle of Morton's Ford, 1864
- Battle of Cut Knife, 1885
- The Defence of Duffer's Drift, 1900