At the London Bridge Alcoves
by Travis Elborough
The symmetry feels important somehow, symbolic even. That there are two alcoves from the Old London Bridge in the far north eastern end of Victoria Park encourages me to indulge in the fantasy that they are actually keeping each other company. Here they sit, these former aged retainers from the City’s founding river crossing, now enjoying a lazy retirement in the closest thing London has to the countryside. Left largely undisturbed and often completely unobserved at the Cadogan Gate entrance of the park, they look out upon a somewhat mundane patch of grass, a track and a few football pitches, predominately brown and muddy from good use. Behind them are the stolidly Victorian town houses of Cadogan Terrace. Built in around 1870, a decade after the alcoves themselves were first placed in the park, and conveniently close to Victoria Park Station, these were the preserve of respectable Pooter-esque commuters. City clerks travelling to Broad Street and the square mile, to offices of inky ledgers full of figures, and soon noisy with the clatter and peal of new-fangled typewriters, telegraphs and telephones. That world of rapidly expanding communications is memorialised on the terrace itself, where one building still bears the lettering of an old post and telegram office. That business is evidently a spectre of the distant past, but its sign seems eerier perhaps for being immaculately repainted rather than left faded, decayed, ghostly and correspondingly irresistible to users of Instagram.
The alcoves, though, date from a much earlier London. A London only just about perking itself up with coffee and tea, if in turn also rendering itself senseless on gin. A London of elegant new neo-classical squares and back alleys of Hogarthian squalor – as the cliche truthfully has it. A London relished by James Boswell who most probably availed himself, as many others did, of a near identical alcove on the original Westminster Bridge when he had sex there with ‘a strong, jolly young damsel’ procured at Haymarket. In his journal for 10 May 1763, he records the particular thrill of ‘doing it’ on the bridge (‘this noble edifice’) while the Thames rolled on below. Whether Victoria Park’s alcoves ever suffered such indignities when they were by the river (or since being in the park), can only be guessed at. But they were added to London Bridge in Boswell’s day, and as part of a series of essential repairs and ‘improvements’ undertaken by George Dance, the City Surveyor, on a bridge that up to 1729 had remained the sole fixed crossing over the Thames until Kingston. Chief among Dance’s works was to widen a medieval span as crook-backed as Richard III from a spindly twelve feet to a more capacious forty-six. While doing so, he also sheared the bridge of its characterful, jagged mane of shops and houses. By 1762, Old London Bridge was plucked as bald as a chicken, and rather like Samson after his run-in with Delilah, was judged to cut a noticeably feebler figure about town for it. Aside from width and a new giant central arch, what it did also gain, however, was fourteen kissing-cubby alcoves. These, like the whole crossing, would be rendered surplus to requirements just sixty years later. It was then that a completely new bridge, designed by the Scottish engineer John Rennie, was finally commissioned after decades of prevarication over the underlying state of a structure that had endured in one form or another for over six hundred years.
Of the fourteen London Bridge alcoves, only four are extant today, three of which remain in London. Like a freed lifer not sure where to go next, one only got as far as Southwark, where it became a garden shelter for convalescing patients at Guy’s Hospital. The other two, after falling into the hands of a Mr Benjamin Dixon, JP, came east, winding up in Victoria Park in 1860. If serving, as they had done on the bridge, as places to repose and escape the rain, they were transformed here from components of the city’s functional (or, perhaps, dysfunctional is more accurate) transport infrastructure into decorative ornaments. Close to a century old, they were antiques and valued, like armless statues salvaged on Grand Tours, as picturesque follies for the park. That classical places were overgrown and full of broken stonework, because they really had gone to rack and ruin, hadn’t stopped eighteenth century English sightseers from delighting in them. Consequently they adopted artfully contrived decay as a compelling aesthetic for domestic parks and gardens, as the architectural critic Robert Harbison once observed.
The alcoves were not the only parts of Old London Bridge to drift from the river and the realm of work, to places given over to leisure and pleasure. Until they were destroyed in the great east coast storm of 1953, two lengths of the old bridge’s balustrades escorted trippers to Herne Bay onto its pier. Each of these reincarnations also offer a kind of a premonition in miniature of the eventual fate of Old London Bridge’s immediate successor: John Rennie’s London Bridge sold off and shipped piece by piece to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in 1968. There it was installed as the centrepiece of a new resort complex. One replete with an ersatz English village boasting a Ye Olde inn, a faux Trafalgar Square with a fountain attended by fun-sized Landseer lions, and a red phone box and red London double decker bus. The reconstructed bridge prevails, and on my visit in 2011 looked rather well, standing over a channel of pellucid water in the blazing western sun. But the English village has been closed for years. Shuttered up and fallen into disrepair, it is earmarked for demolition. For the moment, possibly, it rather than the bridge is more intriguing, standing as a mothballed relic of what was once deemed a fun thing to see and do in America, but no longer, evidently.
Back at Victoria Park, the alcoves, as old things in an old county and in an old park, have such an air of dependability. Like guardsmen in the sentry boxes outside Buckingham Palace, they appear steadfast, impervious to any change. It pleases me to imagine them as a pair of weary spectators of everything that happens in front of them. A Statler and Waldorf in stone, say, passing seen-it-all-before quips between themselves. Or since football rather than puppet vaudeville shows are most commonly in view (a sport with no universally agreed rules and that was three years away from acquiring a national association when they first arrived in the park), Saint and Greavsie could be more apt. And, come to think of it, what could be a better fit than a game of two teams and ‘two halves’ being played out under the implacable gaze of one of east London’s oldest double acts? There’s symmetry, after all, in that.
There is still some dispute over whether these alcoves actually came from Old London Bridge or Old Westminster Bridge.
Painted some twenty times by Canaletto and the subject of a poem by Wordsworth, Old Westminster Bridge was regarded as one of the finest-looking bridges of its age. It was the work of the Swiss-born engineer Charles Labelye and completed in 1750 in Portland stone in the then highly fashionable neo-classical style. After its opening on 8 November that year, The Gentleman's Magazine described it as ‘a very great ornament to our metropolis, and will be looked on with pleasure or envy by all foreigners. The surprising echo in the arches, brings much company with French horns to entertain themselves under it in summer; and with the upper part, for an agreeable airing, none of the publick walks or gardens can stand in competition.’ Those recesses were the alcoves over each of its piers, and, as stated already, near-identical cubbyholes where added to Old London Bridge as part of its repairs and were directly modelled on those on Westminster Bridge.
But the eventual removal of Old London Bridge in 1831, which for centuries had acted as virtually a weir on the Thames, would deal the fatal blow to Labelye’s span. The increased scour of the river gradually ate into the foundations of Old Westminster Bridge, damaging it so badly that it had to be replaced with a new bridge. Designed by Thomas Page, the new Westminster bridge opened in 1862 – just two years after the alcoves arrived in Victoria Park and nearly thirty years after Old London Bridge was taken down.
With London Bridge, a structure that has always been as mythic as monumental and whose precise origins remain decidedly (and appropriately) foggy, the truth is often far less interesting than the legend. Try asking a black cab driver about the sale of London Bridge to America.
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