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.

65 comments on “London Bridge Isn’t The Only One Falling Down”

  1. snowy says:

    Wardley Hall which has bits of dead people in it is a only couple of miles from Worsley Old Hall which doesn’t have any bits of skelly in cupboards, and therefore is a bit dull in comparison.

    The dead boring entry for WOH runs:

    …Francis, the third duke, on breaking off his match with Elizabeth widow of the fourth Duke of Hamilton, devoted himself to carrying out his father’s plans. He lived at the Brick Hall in Worsley, now pulled down, and limiting his personal expenses to £400 a year, employed the remainder of his income in canal-making. He obtained Acts of Parliament in 1758 and 1759 for the construction of a canal from his collieries in Worsley and Farnworth to Salford and to Hollinfare.

    Starting from the underground colliery workings, the canal reached the surface near the centre of Worsley, and was carried, without locks, by a circuitous route and by the famous aqueduct over the Irwell, to Castlefield in the south of Manchester. The engineer was the celebrated James Brindley; John Gilbert, the duke’s agent, also took an active part in the work. The subterranean canal extends nearly 6 miles in a straight line, its terminus being near Deane Church, 550 ft. below the surface of the ground; it has numerous branches intended to serve the collieries; and though no longer used for carrying coal, it is useful in draining the workings.

  2. snowy says:

    ** SKULL FLASH **

    “The skull has plenty of mystery surrounding it – no one is sure if any of the stories are true. In 1963 an archaeologist named Michael Pinney owned Bettiscombe manor and had the skull examined by a pathologist…

    …it belonged to a European woman who died 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The fossilised skull is believed to have been submerged in the well near the manor house, at the foot of Pilsdon Pen, a hill that covers an Iron Age ritual plot. The skull may have come from the hill itself, and the shiny surface of the skull may be the result of its immersion in the well and the minerals contained therein.”

  3. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – The other classic ‘Screaming Skull’ legend, is that of the skull of Theophilus Broome, of Chilton Cantelo, in Somerset. Mr Broome, who died in 1670, left orders that his skull was to remain in the farm house where he had lived. Apparently, subsequent owners who tried to remove it, were treated to sounds of ‘sad displeasure’ and disturbing activity until the grisly relic was returned to it’s home in a small cupboard in the house.

  4. Jan says:

    Now quickly covering these points yes Snowy – that’s a Bridgewater( Duke of) right enough.

    All those places you mentioned here are part of my youth. Lived in Worsley for a year in my late teens.
    Farnworth, Hollins Green( rather than HollinFare ) and Salford are a part of my childhood. Farnsworth and HG are lovely places near The Mosses. Salfords very different.

    The version of the Bettiscombe skull story I have heard tell locally is a variation on the Ian version of events. But who knows? They are a bit funny about letting you near the place there’s springs I want to see in the grounds – No chance!

    Finally Pilsdon Pen is very local to me here. (Part of my older age see?) Fantastic Hill Fort vast, high, with burial mounds. Its not as described here really it certainly not a hill which happens to have burials beneath it. There’s Tumuli from very early times ON TOP OF IT. ” PILLOW MOUNDS”. Plus a later medieval mound. In medieval times they kept rabbits up there!!

    Bettiscombe is not close at all to the base of Pilsdon Pen Snowy it’s a good 2 or three or miles away. So not ringing true. In fact there’s a 1920s constructed farm possibly a major farm certainly about a quarter a mile NE of Pilsdon Pen but I have photographed all the existing wells at the base of the Pen and put stuff out on FB about it they are not ancient.

    This story sounds fantastic interesting but as someone who knows the place well. ( I have lost count of how often I have climbed it ) it’s just not flying with me. Sorry.

    NB there have been a number of male skeletons discovered likely from skirmishes at the location between Durotriges and some other local lads but they were incorporated into the outer vellates of the Hill Fort certainly not beneath this much modified structure

  5. snowy says:

    Ah! If you’ve got furry excavators then things get simpler.

    [A quick look at the old map, where it has the old spelling – Bettescomb, it is quite the walk past the standing stone and skirting the S edge of Templeman’s Ash.]

    So, if there always is an active warren in the earthworks, then the rabbits will be pushing stuff to the surface. [The local ones regularly push things the size of bowling balls out of their burrows]. So the skull could have been picked up at any time by anybody mooching around the Pen looking to fill their pot.

  6. Jan says:

    Distance between Pilsdon Pen and Bettiscombe (however you spell it) s about 2/3 miles Snowy.

    In fact Bettiscombe is far closer to another Hill Fort I visit and climb that being Lamberts Castle.

    I hope never to meet one of these mighty Rabbits of yours.

  7. snowy says:

    Ooops! Might have oversold it a bit with ‘Bowling Ball’, I meant the the wonky things they use in ‘Geriatric Marbles’, not the big ones from ‘American Skittles’.

  8. Jan says:

    I think there might be another more basic problem that I only worked out very very early on this morning I could only write quick line @ work last night…I’m not sure we are actually discussing the same Bettiscombe manor is the place you are on about actually on the Marshwood Vale West Dorset?

  9. snowy says:

    * Checks notes *

    OS Six-inch England and Wales, 1842-1952

    Dorset XXVIII.NE (includes: Bettiscombe; Broadwindsor; Burstock; Marshwood; Pilson; Stoke Abbott.)

    1888 Edition, [and a lovely thing it is, no contours but the hatching on the Pen is exquisite as is the Gothic script].

    Lambert’s Castle is on:

    Dorset XXVIII.SW (includes: Hawkchurch; Marshwood; Whitechurch Canonicorum; Wootton Fitzpaine.)

  10. Jan says:

    Also explains why you were mentioning the megalith/standing stone near Templemans Ash.

  11. Jan says:

    As far as I am aware – am always willing to give it another run – this stone to which you are referring is gone either buried (superstitious farmers are more often inclined to bury rather than destroy)theres a possibility it’s been flattened + lost in gorse and bramble if you can provide a more precise location I will go and look. This is a good time of year to search for crop markings or lost standing stones as everything is quickly dying back.

    I do know of a megalith ‘rediscovered and reclaimed by a local archaeologist /earth mysteries enthusiast near the Grey Mare and her colts in the Bride Valley a good few miles E of here.

    Just as a quick aside rabbits were actually “farmed” at Pilsdon Pen a large medieval pillow mound was created and it’s still visible to accommodate the burrows. Weird eh? Not the only UK e.g. of a hill fort repurposed as a rabbit “farm” the mound is of a square construction like a pillow.

    Although I will be of course wary of the rabbits descendants if they are as you described earlier!

  12. snowy says:

    On your own head…

    To find it on a map, [not walking directions]

    Find the stretch of the B3164 that goes between Birdsmoor Gate and Templeman’s Ash.
    About half way along is Attisham Lane .
    Approx 10-20m W of the lane two footpaths join the B3164
    Follow the E footpath, which initially curves to follow the contours of Sliding Hill, [satellite views show this part as wooded].
    The footpath turns S at the end of the wood for approx. 100m, [satellite shows a cultivated field to E, scrubby grass to W].
    Just before the point the footpath turns SW stop, the stone is approx 60m E in a slight depression.

    Or as a link

  13. snowy says:

    A more detailed description will appear above this as if by magic later.

    There is something visible on the satellite maps, I should be able to tell approximately how tall it is from the shadow it casts. But I don’t have one of those funny table magnifiers, [or a WAAF suit], and an extensive knowledge of the average heights of British Trees growing in the South West.

    [It’s certainly not hugely tall and probably just a rock!]

  14. Jan says:

    Cheers Snowy I am working through till next Wednesday I might have a go then or more probably the following week.

    This a route I have walked parts of b4 the roads one I drive a good deal and this megalith has been mentioned before to me but always in terms of being previously taken away. I’ll take gardening gloves and a trowel + camera! I have already had a look in me OS map will let u know the result.

  15. snowy says:

    I forgot to inc. the source, so here it is:

    [Bettiscombe manor did have links to the island of Nevis, but unraveling them is complicated. It begins with a man sent out as a ‘White Slave’ and draws to a close several generations later when another returns with his Creole wife and seven children.]

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