Old London Bridge

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Scattered fragments of a lost landmark

Old London Bridge, from Kew Gardens to Victoria Park

An alcove from Old London Bridge, now in Courtlands, East Sheen
An alcove from Old Lon­don Bridge, now in an East Sheen gar­den

The first Lon­don Bridge to be built of stone was com­plet­ed in 1209. Though it fre­quent­ly need­ed repairs, it was a remark­ably stur­dy struc­ture – strong enough to sup­port an ear­ly form of shop­ping mall until this was removed in the mid-18th cen­tu­ry. There­after, 14 alcoves were erect­ed along the road­way, intend­ed to pro­vide shel­ter for pedes­trians – not so much from the ele­ments but from the per­ils of the bridge’s cease­less flow of horse-drawn draf­fic.

Down below, over­sized pil­ings pro­tect­ed the bridge’s piers while cre­at­ing treach­er­ous cur­rents in the Thames. The fall of water at the ebb tide could be as great as six feet. Nav­i­gat­ing a boat through the arch­es was known as ‘shoot­ing the bridge’ – a thrill for some Lon­don­ers, for oth­ers a risk not worth tak­ing. Reg­is­ters of local buri­als fre­quent­ly record­ed ‘drowned at the bridge’ as the cause of death. ‘Lon­don Bridge was made for wise men to go over and fools to go under’, ran the old say­ing.

The riv­er-block­ing, traf­fic-squeez­ing bridge was super­seded in 1831 by a four-pier, five-arch suc­ces­sor, built just a few yards upstream (and since trans­posed to Lake Hava­su City, Ari­zona). Over the course of the fol­low­ing year, the medieval struc­ture was dis­man­tled and its stones and sur­viv­ing orna­men­ta­tion were dis­persed far and wide. Many of these relics were lost for­ev­er but you can still track down a few of them on a wide-rang­ing tour of mod­ern Lon­don.

Four of the bridge’s alcoves sur­vive in Lon­don today: two near Cado­gan Gate in Vic­to­ria Park, one in the court­yard of Guy’s Hos­pi­tal (now graced by a stat­ue of John Keats) and one in the grounds of Court­lands, a clus­ter of low-rise flat blocks in East Sheen. The lat­ter is the only sur­viv­ing fea­ture from the gar­dens of a man­sion that stood here until the 1930s.

There are stones from Old Lon­don Bridge out­side Wren’s church of St Mag­nus the Mar­tyr, in Kew Gar­dens and on the west side of Wandsworth Com­mon, where some have been used in a gar­den wall and oth­ers in the fab­ric of one of the hous­es in the same street (shown in the image below). The wall stretch­es the length of sev­er­al prop­er­ties, although one igno­rant house­hold­er has demol­ished his sec­tion and replaced it with new brick­work. Wandsworth coun­cil should hang its head in shame for hav­ing allowed such des­e­cra­tion.

Wandsworth Common - 49 Heathfield Road, with stones from Old London Bridge

Except for Kew Gardens all the locations mentioned above can be viewed without charge, although some are on private land