Saturday, July 21, 2012

London Bridge is...

A model of medieval London Bridge

There are many stories about London Bridge. Perhaps the the most widely known is the children’s nursery rhyme which goes: “London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, my fair lady...”  It’s evocative on several levels, perhaps because London Bridge was for aeons the only crossing of the Thames; and perhaps because it has indeed fallen down on serval occasions. 

But possibly the most amusing story about the Bridge is that the Americans bought it, and removed it stone for stone to a site in the USA. This is in fact a true story, though it may be apocryphal that the Americans thought they were in fact getting Tower Bridge (that iconic drawbridge with the two towers, which stands beside the Tower of London).

Not this one.

But even more interesting than these stories is the real history of London Bridge. The very first bridge was built by the Romans at their settlement of Londoninium. The Thames in those early days was a wider river with soggy estuaries into the surrounding countryside, but the Romans - who were accomplished engineers and bridge builders - carefully chose a narrow part of the river with relatively solid banks. The original Roman London Bridge was built of wood, as were many replacements that succeeded it. Amazingly, the foundations of these early versions have been discovered by archaeologists, buried beneath the layer upon layer of London buildings that have turned the original walled city into a veritable layer-cake of buried history. It seems that it has been a custom through history to throw things off the Bridge - coins in particular, but also other small objects. The Thames under London Bridge has been the recipient of many Roman and medieval coins and objects, enabling archeologists to date the various iterations of the Bridge quite accurately.

When the Romans left, the Saxons also maintained a London Bridge at or near the same spot. It was variously burnt, destroyed by raiding Vikings, or fell down from deterioration; but it was always eventually renewed by whichever pre-1000 AD tribe happened to occupy the town - which became and remained the most important city in Britain. After his big win at Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror took a little time to secure London for himself - her was first repelled at London Bridge - but eventually he took the city, and continued to maintain the Bridge (he was also responsible for building the Tower of London).
In medieval times the wooden structure was replaced by a stone bridge, a most fascinating thing with a Stone Gate at Southwark on the Southern bank, upon which the heads of traitors were traditionally displayed on pikes, up until fairly recent times. The Bridge was supported by arches braced by strange engineering works called “starlings”, and it acted a bit like a dam, causing a great rapids-like rushing of the river water through the arches. Navigating through them by boat was a hair-raising and dangerous business.

Model of the medieval bridge in London Museum Docklands.

But the most interesting features of the medieval London Bridge was that it was built with shops, houses and a chapel across its length. This was not uncommon in Europe of the day (there are a few examples left intact, such as the Ponte de Vecchio in Florence). The rent from the houses and shops helped to pay for the maintenance of the bridge. It needed a lot of maintenance - the river eroded the starlings and their piles had to be regularly renewed and back-filled with rubble. 

London Bridge in 1616 by Claes van Visscher

The medieval London Bridge was a fine thing to look at. To increase its usefulness (and the rents) the houses were several stories high. The chapel about halfway along its length was dedicated to Saint Thomas Beckett, he who was unjustly murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on the orders of Henry II (think of T S Eliot’s "Murder in the Cathedral"). Chaucer’s pilgrims in his “Canterbury Tales” were on their way to pay their respects to the saint in Canterbury, and began their journey at an inn in Southwark, by London Bridge. Interestingly, the project manager, as we might call him, for the stone bridge was a clergyman named Peter of Colechurch - building bridges was, like building churches, considered an appropriate undertaking for the clergy. He died a few years before the stone bridge was completed - it took 33 years to build - but he was appropriately buried in the crypt of St Thomas’s Chapel on the bridge. 
Eventually the medieval bridge outlived its design worth - the passage between the houses was barely wide enough for two carts to pass, and a new bridge was needed. Also, it had been damaged by fire a few times, including in the great Fire of London in 1666. A Victorian London Bridge went up in the early 19th century, wider and without any structures on it. Although the building of the new bridge ignited public interest in the old one and its history, nothing of it was preserved, other than a few bits and pieces taken to parks  (some of its stone alcoves sit today in Victoria park and the grounds of Guys Hospital: see this site), and its foundational remains, buried. When the chapel on the medieval bridge was torn down, the remains of poor old Peter of Colechurch were lost, presumably just thrown into the river - the stories the Thames could tell!

Today's London Bridge.

The Victorian London Bridge was replaced by the present structure in 1973, and it is the Victorian one that was sold to the handy Americans. The current modern London Bridge connects the busy borough of Southwark with the heart of the old City of London. On its south side is London Bridge Station, one of London’s busiest railway stations. The Thames is now crossed by dozens of road and foot bridges, but the very first of them is still there - albeit in the latest of many transmorgifications.
London Bridge. There’s just something about the very name. 

All the bridges across the Thames in London.

Workers stream home across London Bridge on a stormy evening.

Here's  an interesting site which reminds us that:

The River Thames at London is the most-bridged river in any major city. There are 18 road bridges, nine rail bridges and three footbridges in Greater London.
Yet for most of its history, the Thames has been one of the least-bridged major-city rivers. Amazingly, for more than 1,500 years, from when the Romans founded the city until a timber bridge was built at Putney in 1729, London only ever had one bridge — London Bridge.

Some images from:

No comments:

Post a Comment