Last time, we visited the fabled heart of London, the London Stone. Today we discover the actual heart of London, London Bridge, where London truly began. In one sense the Bridge spans London’s whole history as well as the river. There’s a beautiful sundial near Tower Hill which depicts the history of London from London Bridge to the building of the Thames Barrier, which is a pretty good way of looking at it, I reckon.
London Bridge is not a work of decorative genius, made as it is of concrete and girders. No-one looking at it would guess at the long history of the place. Unhelpfully, every website and book I have read gives a different account of the Bridge, but by my count there have been at least six:
- the original Roman bridge, build by Claudius’s invading army around AD 43 (which doesn’t really count but nevertheless existed)
- a permanent wooden replacement built around AD60, which Londinium developed next to. The Romans left, the bridge rotted, Londinium was abandoned, and the river became a boundary between the warring Mercia and Wessex. The bridge wasn’t properly replaced until…
- the Anglo-Saxons built another wooden bridge, probably in the 9th century. It stayed up until 1014, when some combination of Ethelred the Unready and King Olaf of Norway pulled it down again, as part of their plan to get the Danes out of London. This Skandian legend has been immortalised in the song ‘London Bridge is falling down’ (which is what happens when you tie stuff to a major bridge support and row away at speed). All was peace and quiet on the bridge front until…
- the medieval stone bridge was completed in 1209. It was a wonder of the world for 600 years, and was so big it interfered with the Thames itself – the newly narrowed river froze solid in winter. Over the years it effectively became a town in its own right – it came complete with a drawbridge to allow ships to pass under it, a chapel in the middle, and was densely packed with shops. More worryingly it also had a selection of boiled and tarred heads on sticks, by way of encouraging good behaviour. Notable heads included William Wallace, St Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell and Guy Fawkes, and records indicate that more than 30 were displayed there by the late 1600s). By 1722 the bridge had got so crowded with buildings and whatnot, they introduced the custom of making traffic stay on the left hand side, which we have stuck with ever since. The bridge survived plague, and even the Great Fire, but could not meet the needs of growing London, so eventually was replaced by…
- the modern bridge, built in 1831 which was famously sold to an American and is now the second biggest tourist attraction in Arizona. It was the biggest antique ever sold, and yes, Robert P. McCulloch did buy the right bridge…
- the current bridge, built for durability rather than looks, was opened by the Queen in 1973. It had the advantage of being able to cope with the volume of modern traffic, which it does jolly well. Those film shots of busy Londoners walking purposefully to work on a bridge are very often shot on London Bridge, because it is such a crucial thoroughfare to the City. It is London’s only hollow bridge, and its pavements are heated in the winter.
My visit to London Bridge happened late one Thursday evening, just as it began to rain. It wasn’t that fine stuff that wets you through, it was that thick blobby stuff that resembles a ton of soggy golf balls falling from the sky. I walked up to it, the sky as dark and ominous as the grey concrete and the dark Thames itself. To be honest, my feet were aching, I was at risk of drowning, and was keen to take the photo and move on. I paused when I noticed two French girls taking in the view of the dense, dark rainclouds descending on St Paul’s. They didn’t even bother to look at the glorious Tower Bridge (London Bridge’s showy cousin), or the ultra-modern structures like the Gherkin and Tower 42 sitting next to the ancient City. “C’est très, très belle,” one breathed. I was inclined to agree. The magic of London is in its history and the boldness of its design. As a city we move and adapt, however hard it is, because we must. Every era has reponded to the challenge of crossing this busy piece of water, and in doing so has told a lesson about itself. Who knows, perhaps our successors will too.
We will return to London Bridge as time goes on, because the “London Bridge Experience,” and “finding discarded bits of the medieval London Bridge” are forthcoming things to do in London. Bur for a moment we’ll pause on the history. Next time, we’ll zoom into the future with a tardis, a pilot and the fabulous BBC.
Wikipedia page, accessed 1 August 2011
The London Compendium: A street-by-street exploration of the hidden metropolis, Linnert Ed, Penguin, 2004
I never knew that about London, Winn, Christopher, Ebury Press, 207.