The Bridges That Built London with Dan Cruickshank

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London, says the architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, constantly surprises him. Filming his new documentary on the capital’s bridges and the Thames, he went in search of the oldest span to cross the river within the city. This turned out not to date, as you might guess, from the Roman era.

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Instead, on a morning when the tide was low, Cruickshank tramped west from below the shadow of the MI6 building through “wonderful oozy mud” to a point near Vauxhall Bridge. There he met Gustav Milne, an archaeologist who specialises in studying the foreshore. The two gazed on rarely exposed oaken piles dating from the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago.

“It was a causeway to a now dredged-away island,” says Cruickshank. “It wouldn’t have been across the Thames – it was a bridge from the south bank to an island on which there would have been, presumably, a temple.”

Such ‘ghost’ bridges are a recurring theme of this documentary, which is built partly on the idea that bridges have a transformative effect on cities. Perhaps the most famous ghost is ‘Old’ London Bridge, the city’s first masonry bridge, designed by Peter de Colechurch. Its construction began in 1176 and the bridge stood for more than six centuries.

It had a profound effect on the city. Its arches acted as a weir, helping to slow down the Thames so that ‘frost fairs’, held when thick ice covered the river, became a feature of London life. London Bridge also attracted residents, and provided a sturdy link to the south.

“Houses appear on the bridge, not immediately, but very early in the 13th century, and so it survives for centuries with houses. And one always imagines a world within a world, with people living on it and working on it,” says Cruickshank. “It was I suppose a great breach of London’s defences: the Thames had in a sense become a moat against invasions from the south, and the bridge at the start had a drawbridge in the middle of it so that invading hordes couldn’t get across.”

Other bridges call up less romantic images. In 1817, the great architect John Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge opened. It gained an unwelcome reputation. “In the 1840s, it was so notorious for suicides, certainly for women, that there were poems and paintings about it,” says Cruickshank. “It becomes one of the myths and emblems of London.” As to why
so many decided to end it all by jumping from Waterloo Bridge in particular, it was partly because the toll payable to cross it was comparatively high and it was thus “more desolate, more abandoned” than other options.

Sadly, none of Rennie’s London bridges survive, although what Cruickshank calls the “veneer” of the Rennie-designed London Bridge, which replaced the medieval construction, was rebuilt in Arizona. “Substantial remains” of one of the piers of Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge can still be seen too, on the north side of the Thames, “preserved as a viewing place, [but] now completely abandoned and filthy”.

The view from a rowing boat was thankfully less grubby, a way for Cruickshank to look anew at the city he calls home. “We wanted to see [London] differently,” he says. “This simple thing: who goes on the river now at night on a rowing boat? People used to do it all the time until early last century. Now no one does; it’s strange, the city kind of ignores the Thames.

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The Bridges That Built London with Dan Cruickshank airs on BBC Four on Thursday 14 June at 9pm