Bridge With A Long, Fiery History
By DALE PARRIS
Star Travel Editor
If the developers of Lake Havasu City, a new resort community on the Colorado River, art “to put the town on the map,” they surely won’t dream up a more dramatic way than their recent purchase and proposed relocation of world-famous London Bridge.
For every English-speaking bloke the world over knows that the centuries-old bridge, long a treasured London landmark, has been falling down ever since early all those mornings when he was five or six years old.
Whether the prophetic nursery rhyme refers to the New London Bridge, built a mere 136 years ago, or to the Old London Bridge, completed way back in 1209, is anybody’s guess — both share the fate of falling before the force of “progress.”
The Old London Bridge weathered storm and flood for 600 years, from the days of King John down to within six years of the reign of Queen Victoria. It was replaced in the 1820’s by “a modern bridge with elliptical arches to permit coastal vessels, even colliers, to pass under if provided with striking (hinged) masts.”
This “New London Bridge,” which has been sinking at rate of eight inches a year, was sold last week to the McCulloch Corp. of Phoenix for 2½ million. Its 10,000 tons of granite are to be dismantled block by block, shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled to span a channel curling through Lake Havasu City. It will be replaced in London with a wider structure to handle busy traffic.
Building of the original London Bridge, first stone bridge to span the River Thames, was begun in 1176. Construction was directed by Peter of Cole Church, chaplain of St. Mary Cole Church, who also had overseen construction of the last timber bridge over Thames in 1163.
One historian estimated that some 250 lives were lost during the 33 years of toil which went into construction of the bridge. Nor did Peter live to see its completion — he died before the last few arches were finished and was buried in the undercroft of the bridge chapel. But, for more than five centuries it was the only bridge over the Thames and during that time its weatherbeaten arches carried all the city’s cross-river traffic.
The original bridge had 19 pointed arches and a drawbridge which was incorporated both for defense and to let ships pass at high water. Near the middle of the bridge was built a grand pier which provided space for the chapel, built beside the roadway, and to serve as an anchor in mid-river to withstand the force of flood.
The river, about 900 feet wide at the bridge, was nearly halved by the width of the piers, and on both ebb and flow the tide roared through the narrow openings like a mill race, according to one account. The adventure of navigation beneath the bridge led to an old saying that “London Bridge is intended to wise men to go over and fools to go under.”
Funds for building the bridge came from both national and private sources, including a special tax on wool imposed by Henry II.
The bridge was protected by a stone gate at each end and the drawbridge near the center. No attacks on the bridge ever succeeded, the heads of men who tried it, such as Thomas Fauconberg, leader of the men of Kent, in 1471, were displayed with those of traitors on poles above the drawbridge gate. (A dozen or more spiked heads adorn a drawing of the bridge by a 15th century artist with a talent for realistic detail.)
The old bridge’s 20-foot-wide roadway was narrowed by rows of houses and shops which overhung the river at the back. The upper floors protruded over the street, some structures meeting midway to form a tunnel.
In July, 1212, a terrible fire swept the bridge from end to end, trapping thousands of pedestrians and horsemen, many of whom leapt into the river and drowned. Undaunted by such disasters, Londoners rebuilt the rows of shops and houses, mow more substantial and commodious, only to have them again destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
After the later catastrophe, the roadway was widened and the houses rebuilt in Restoration style with hipped roofs, dormer windows and overhanging eaves. In Elizabethan times dwellings on the bridge were occupied by men of means, but as London grew the fashion changed and the property deteriorated.
In 1757 demolition of houses and shops began, the bridge was further widened and two of its arches converted into one span in midstream. The flow of water through the enlarged arch scoured the river bed and threatened the piers, paving the way for building a new bridge.
The new span was designed by John Rennie, a talented Scotch farm boy who had come to the capital of the recently United Kingdom to make his fortune, Rennie, who by now had become England’s foremost engineer, had new soundings and studies of the river made and concluded that renovation was possible but recommended that the whole venerable structure be replaced.
His design of a modern bridge with only five arches and a center span of 150 feet, won approval of the city fathers but he died before construction was authorized, in 1823. His son, Sir John Rennie, was appointed to fill the commission and the new bridge was completed in 1831.
Rennie’s masterpiece reassembled in the new Colorado River town, is expected to become a tourist attraction second only to the Grand Canyon. And, who knows? T’was only a few hundred years after its precursor was built that London town became the greatest city in the world.