London Bridge

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
– G. K. Chesterton

Despite the legends, it’s not really true that the Roman engineers insisted that their roads had to be straight, no matter the obstacle.  Their roads did bend on occasion.  True, there are lots of places where you can still see evidence of their unreasonable efforts to keep to a straight line when a diversion would be easier.  But whether that is due to stubborn Roman engineering or the fact that the roads were built by the Roman army (no military being famous for its flexibility) is open to question.  What is not open to question is the fact that they were great engineers, determined to build well, even in the remotest provinces.

And nowhere was more remote in the Roman world than England.  The Romans landed there in AD 43 (or 43 CE) and started conquering their way north.  By around 47, they had reached the river Tamesis (Thames).  The river was much wider and shallower than today, maybe four or five times wider.  The land around it was probably pretty marshy.  But, being good engineers, the Romans saw some solid advantages to the location.

First, although forty miles from the sea, it was still a tidal river.  Aside from offering some pretty good mixed fishing, this meant that great stretches of the river’s gravelly banks were bared every day.  And that meant that ships and could sail up the river, beach themselves, and be conveniently off-loaded and re-loaded.  Then, too, there were plenty of little streams feeding into the river right there, providing good fresh water, even at high tide, and convenient routes for delivering farm goods to the waiting ships.

It was the north bank that had the hard, flattish ground suitable for a city.  And a city there needed communications to the south, where most of the Roman settlements lay.  So those Roman engineers laid out a bridge, just above the high tide line, and the Roman soldiers built it, hundreds of yards long.  It was the sort of wonder that probably awed and scared the heck out of the locals.  The Romans christened their new city Londinium and settled themselves down to stay.

The legions stayed for 360 years, until the Empire began to crumble and they were recalled.  Many Romans probably stayed on after that, gradually melding into the polyglot population.

No one knows how often the Roman’s wooden bridge was blown down, torn down, or burned down over the centuries, but we know it was a lot.  Still, even the Romans were not quite crazy enough to try to remake this giant bridge out of stone.  For that, we had to wait for them to become Englishmen.

It was Henry II who sponsored the creation of a brand new stone bridge across the Thames in 1176.  It took them 33 years to do, and both Henry and the bridge’s designer were long dead when it was finally finished.  It was the wonder of the age, cost a ton of money, and probably made lots of people very rich in the process.

At any rate, the result, while an architectural marvel, was also somewhat odd.  It was about 900 feet long and somewhere between 24 and 30 feet wide which, as it turned out, was much too narrow.  It had 20 piers separating 19 arches.  But no two arches were the same size.  Whether it was because of the difficulty of finding firm enough footings or that of trying to build piers from moving boats, the arches varied between 15 to 34 feet wide, giving the new bridge a somewhat snaggle-toothed appearance.

When the rains came, the Thames would run pretty fast, creating a real danger of scouring out the ground from around the piers.  To prevent that, each pier stood in its own little stone boat, called a starling, with its prow pointed upstream.  All those piers and all those starlings severely narrowed the area that the river could run through.  When the Thames was really rushing the water running through the narrower arches were said to drop a full six feet from one side to the other.  That flow and the occasional freezes meant that the bridge needed a fair amount of periodic maintenance.

Maybe it was the cost of all that repair that led to the next oddity.  The bridge was hardly built before they started renting out building lots on top of it.  Remember, the biggest estimate is that the bridge was only 30 feet wide.  But these lunatics rented out sites on both sides of it!  Before long there were something like 200 vendors with shops on London Bridge.

How did they do it?  Imagine you’re a shopkeeper and you’re going to set up on London Bridge.   First problem: the authorities insist that there has to be a road down the center of the bridge of about 12 feet: enough for two carts to pass side-by-side.  Assuming the bridge was a full 30 feet wide, you and your neighbor across the way each have a maximum of 9 feet total depth for your shops.

So what do you do?  You build out, of course.  Your little shop runs right out to the edge of the bridge…and keeps going.  You cantilever the back of your shop so it overhangs the river.

But, of course, you want to live over your shop.  So you add another floor, which can be wider still.  Since you’ve already left the legal minimum space on your first floor to allow carts and carriages to pass, you can extend your 2nd floor towards the center of the bridge, over the roadway, giving you a decent amount of living space.  If the authorities quibble with you about how dark you’ve made the bridge road, just point out to them how much your overhang protects passers-by from the rain.

Soon the bridge was an institution.  Thousands of people used the bridge not merely to cross the river, but to eat and shop.  The merchants hung the signs that showed what their businesses were from the bottom of their 2nd floor overhangs.  The rule was that the signs had to be above the height of a man on horseback.  They used glass front windows to display their goods.  The bridge became the specialty place, famous as the place to buy pins and needles and other small, fancy goods.

As the merchants grow more prosperous, they added to their buildings.  There were some that grew to a full five stories.  The temptation to make them wider was not always resisted and the carpentry was not always perfect.  Some building began to sag inwards, so wooden beams appeared high up, keeping the buildings upright and linking the two sides together.  In time some of the houses on either side merged into one connected span.

Of course, some of the buildings, with that colossal outboard overhang, also wanted to lean outwards and were in danger of actually falling into the river.  So great iron bars were added in some places, spanning the roadway and holding up opposite houses like two drunks holding on for mutual support.

Under the bridge, the wear and tear on the arches called for replacement stones and mortar, with the occasional iron bar braces down there, too, helping to hold up the buildings.

Anyone standing back and just looking at the bridge might have been forgiven for thinking that soon enough the whole thing would just collapse into the river.  No matter how many times it burned, they just kept rebuilding it in the same old ramshackle way.  It might have stood for over 600 years, but anyone could see that it was falling down…all the time.

Most nursery rhymes are actually fairly recent.  And while they may conceal some ancient story in their bones, it’s pretty well hidden and hard to prove.  (I was horribly disappointed to learn that Ring Around the Rosie has nothing to do with the Black Death.  Sigh.)  But there is an exception to the rule.  While there are many apocryphal stories about the beginnings of this rhyme and enough versions to satisfy a dozen legends, each verse here is pretty solid history:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair Lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with needles and pins,
Needles and pins, Needles and pins.
Build it up with needles and pins,
My fair lady.

Needles and pins will bend and break,
Bend and break, Bend and break.
Needles and pins will bend and break,
My fair lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair Lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair Lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair Lady.

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