The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Popular as this nursery rhyme is, it is a comment on how often this, the oldest of the crossings continuously in use over the Thames, required maintenance and repair. And what a wealth of popular culture references this singular marvel: a film, a poem, a video game, classical music, and even a Korean nursery rhyme.

There have been bridges over the Thames at this spot since Roman times. The Saxons constructed a series of wooden bridges that were destroyed by storms, towed away by invaders, fire, or to make way for a stone construction in the 13th century. The bridge was the scene of lavish celebrations: people lived, traded, worshipped and were even buried on it for centuries, until increasing congestion (and competition from other crossings) led to it being cleared of houses by 1758, in an attempt to speed up crossing times) (quote from Cross River Traffic, by Chris Roberts). The removal of tolls dramatically increased congestion again on the bridge; tidal scouring eroded the supports and foundations.
Charles Dickens made several references to this, the long-standing Old London Bridge. Trying to save Oliver Twist, Nancy is observed by Noah Claypole, meeting Mr Brownlow on the steps of the Bridge, and is murdered. In Great Expectations, Pip crosses the bridge in despair after learning that Estella was to be married to Drummle. David Copperfield used to sit there in a ruminative mood: " look over the balustrades at the sun shining in the water and lighting up the golden flame on top of the Monument."
John Rennie's five-arched bridge was the next replacement (1831), but the weary Old London Bridge continued to be used till 1832. People collected artefacts and detritus from around the old bridge, the more fascinating ones being preserved in the Fishmongers Hall (an armchair made up of wooden pilings from various bridges), Roman coins and other valuables. The greatest of the treasures turned out to be Rennie's bridge itself: it was purchased by the McCulloch Oil Corporation in 1968 when it could no longer cope with burgeoning traffic and unmanageable tides. It was then disassembled and transported to Arizona in 10,246 pieces for reconstruction at Lake Havasu. As an unexpected bonus, the Americans even got a haunting - four spectral women in Victorian costume during the dedication ceremony.

The latest crossing opened in 1973. It is of pre-stressed concrete with a granite finish. All in all, a soulless edifice. About the only thing to recommend it is the fact the price of the new bridge coincidentally turned out to be the same as the cost of buying, transporting and re-erecting the Rennie bridge in the US. Talk about a balanced budget!


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