In contrast to the ugly concentre monstrosity that spans the Thames today, the London Bridge of medieval times was an awe-inspiring stone structure which attracted visitors from all over Europe. Taking over 30 years to complete, and claiming the lives of an estimated 150 workmen during its construction, it boasted houses, shops, latrines and even a chapel. From its inception in 1176, the bridge would remain in place for over 600 years, albeit patched up on numerous occasions after fires and other accidents, until it was replaced by a structure in London Bridge’s current position in 1832.
Having a crossing at this point on Thames made medieval Southwark the bustling place that it was. Travellers heading from the Kent coast would have stopped off in the inns on what is now Borough High Street before continuing their journey across London Bridge and into London. London Bridge was the only crossing point over the Thames until Westminster Bridge opened in 1750, so it’s no surprise that the organisation, Bridge House Estates, controlling the revenues became very prosperous, especially as it snapped up huge swathes of land along the river bank. And as I blogged about earlier, it was for many years the location where the heads of famous alleged traitors were displayed.
But for such a wonderful medieval structure, the traces of which have all but vanished bar a few select archaeological traces, and the prosperity that it brought to the surrounding area from as far back as Roman times, its history is not properly commemorated. Only the London Bridge Experience, an attraction built in the vaults of the 19th century construction, attempts to tell what should be an amazing story. In reality however the treatment at the Tooley Street venue is superficial, tacky and falls far short of what London Bridge deserves.
At face value, what the London Bridge Experience has tried to create could be seen as imaginative as visitors see a mocked up chapel, ale house and shop, reminding us that there was a busy and thriving community on the medieval structure. The dimly lit passages that you pass along today evoke the dark alleyways of the old bridge, stemming from the 200 buildings that lined the structure. Actors playing characters associated with the bridge, like traders and clergy, popped up along the way with stories. All in all, a fine way of communicating to audiences young and old what a fine construction it was.
But then the rest of the attraction sadly disappoints. Interesting and original London Bridge artefacts in cabinets are poorly labelled. Visitors don’t in any case have enough time to look at everything here because they are quickly herded to the next room. And even though London Bridge has more than enough history itself visitors are distracted by talk of Whitechapel in the East End and the tales of the legend of Jack the Ripper, probably worth a museum in itself.
Then of course there is the ridiculous charade of a ‘tour’ through the adjoining London Tombs, where an array of creatures jump out and ‘frighten’ visitors. London’s scariest visitor attraction? I don’t think so.
Sadly for the medieval London Bridge the decline kicked in after the Great Fire of London of 1666. As new development kicked in around the wider capital, it was no longer the most desirable address for the wealthy who wanted to escape the cesspits and dirty industry of both the south and north banks. Why would the elite put up with living on what was described, by some, as the most congested street in London when they could live in fashionable new properties that were being built to the west of the capital?
Structural weaknesses were spotted in 1801 and so a completely new bridge was ordered, 100 yards upstream from the original. But even that soon cracked with the volume of traffic, particularly as passenger numbers increased at London Bridge station, and so parliament ordered for work to begin on another new one, the current bridge, in 1967, bringing an amazing history up to date. There is talk of a new London Bridge museum, but sadly for now the best commemoration we have is the London Bridge Experience. At London Bridge, yes. An experience, yes. But not one worth spending money on visiting.