Writing Portfolio


The model bridge

To the City, specifically to the Church of St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street (not far from the Monument). Reckoned to be one of the finest of London’s Wren churches, it has appeared in a few literary works – Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – and was so close to London Bridge – the old, Medieval one – that the churchyard formed part of the approach road.

It was the Old London Bridge that drew me to St Magnus-the-Martyr, which is Church of England even though the interior looks decidedly Catholic (which is in a sense appropriate, as it is the only C of E church where the vicar goes by the title of Cardinal Rector). Inside the church is a scale model of said bridge as it would have looked circa. 1400, complete with shops, houses and even a church along its length.

Located a few yards downstream from its modern version, Old London Bridge (not to be confused with its nineteenth-century replacement which was sold to an American entrepreneur in the late Sixties and rebuilt in Arizona) tends to linger in London’s folk-memory. For centuries it was the only bridge across the Thames. People actually lived on it (I can repeat that all I want, but I still can’t get my head around the idea of living in a house on a bridge). It was from there that pilgrims began their journeys to Canterbury (the church – actually a chapel – was dedicated to Thomas Becket). And, of course, it was on the bridge’s southern gatehouse that the severed heads of traitors were impaled on pikes.

The detail on the model is superb, with the tiny figures giving the viewer a good idea of how congested the bridge was. The street itself, crammed in between those houses, was just 12 feet wide and it was said that during busy times, crossing it took an hour. There was an alternative, but anyone tempted to use a waterman to cross the river in the vicinity of the bridge had to bear in mind that this was fraught with danger as the bridge’s narrow arches and wide pier bases – faithfully represented on the model – could produce fearsome rapids depending on the state of the tide, and it was said that only fools would try to pass under it.

This is well worth a visit – a chance to get a glimpse, however fleeting, at what one of London’s most famous landmarks would have looked like in its heyday. There’s even a deliberate anachronism, for the man who made the bridge back in 1987 (a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers) used to be a copper and so couldn’t resist adding the figure of a modern policeman to his Medieval model. I say ‘apparently’ because, alas, I couldn’t spot it.

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