London Bridge Isn’t The Only One Falling Down
Google ‘London Bridge’ and see what comes up.
When I was researching the 19th Bryant & May book ‘Oranges & Lemons’, I started branching off on my hunt for unusual corners of the city’s history, and realised that I was storing ideas for another book which would become the next novel, ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’. This research came out of the nursery rhyme material that’s in ‘O&L’ and proved fascinating stuff; for example, the way in which children’s songs were used to convey political messages across counties.
It made me think about bridges in general, their symbolism and history. They’re connections, but their removal becomes a symbol of war. This week, an article about London’s bridges appeared in the New York Times, saying that they really are falling down. Decades of underfunding has resulted in the poor stopgap maintenance of Vauxhall Bridge, London Bridge and particularly Hammersmith Bridge. All three are suffering closures (Hammersmith’s is particularly long) while repairs are made.
The Times is being a little disingenuous, for this is nothing new. Bridges are always in need of repair, and an earlier London Bridge was actually pulled down by Vikings in boats in 1014. I remember that in the 1970s Hammersmith Bridge was always being closed to traffic because so much of it was rusted through. Bridges in general have limited lifespans or suffer from poor engineering, as we saw in Genoa, where 43 people were killed when their suspension bridge collapsed.
Hammersmith & Fulham council look after a very wealthy catchment area, and there are accusations that the government does not want to be seen spending fortunes on rich neighbourhoods when they’re trying to level up the national economy. The problem is also due to the materials used in bridges like the one at Hammersmith, being iron, not steel, which rusts and fractures as it heats and cools.
Hammersmith Bridge is a very pretty 19th century dinosaur, entirely unsuited to today’s needs, but to widen or replace it is virtually impossible. Any temporary fixes are expensive and take ages to construct. All bridges must be closed from time to time, but Hammersmith Bridge, like its wealthier sister Chelsea Bridge, is unusually narrow and problematic. Under the tarmac lay wooden blocks that wore badly, and although many bridges are designed to be flexible, the suspension bridges cause tiny fractures that expand as water gets in.
But the British are very good about allowing themselves to be held back by nostalgia. If London is a city suffering from its past, it is also a city that has made some staggeringly wrong decisions, tearing down buildings that could be perfectly well repurposed.
When London Bridge faced a similar not-fit-for-purpose problem in the 1970s the rather plain existing bridge was sold off to an enterprising American who used it as the centrepiece of his Lake Havasu development, where it became a huge success and looked a lot more attractive there than it did here. We’ve always under-recognised our bridges; Google ‘London Bridge’ and see what comes up!
London Bridge, not the bizarre Victorian gothic Tower Bridge, is the heart of London. Tower Bridge is a fake; stone cladding over steel, turrets and a walkway which are merely fussy dressing. But without London Bridge it’s safe to say there would have been no London, because the Romans made it their first crossing point.
There are over 200 bridges, 27 tunnels, six public ferries, one cable car link, and one ford along the 346 km course of the Thames. For me the most fascinating non-central areas are around Shepperton, where there are private islands and harbours and everyone seems to own a boat even though their houses are in permanent danger of flooding. At the opposing end of the city’s reach there’s the stretch of land heading toward Southend on the North shore, where flat-bottomed sailing barges still ford the estuary.
Few cities are so defined by their river. London may appear somewhat like Budapest, which is split into two cities by the Danube, but for centuries the Thames defined the nature of its people, North and South. The massive high-end building redevelopments in the city, apartments geared around being close to work, came to define the start of the new century. They may now have to change as the population proves reluctant to be in offices anymore. A partial dispersal of residents may yet prove to be a Good Thing.
‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ will be out next year, by which time it should have been shored up once more. As for Hammersmith Bridge, until major investment is made it will continue to be a poor makeshift version of what the city really deserves.
Weirdly, I open Private Eye and find a similar article today about ‘sagging’ Hammersmith Bridge. A victim of ‘funding cuts and paralysing indecision’. The repair bill will be £120 million.