The Thames has over two hundred bridges crossing it, which is remarkable given that for much of its history, there was just the one – London Bridge. One of the most interesting of these bridges is perhaps Waterloo Bridge. It may not be the most glamorous looking, but in this week’s quick installment of “Love Letters To London”, I shall explain why I’m particularly fond of it.
The original Waterloo Bridge (known as the Strand Bridge before completion) was built on this stretch of the river, now situated between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, in 1817, opened as a toll bridge. Its history remains chequered, as during the 1840s, it had become a popular destination for suicide attempts, a reputation that seems to have tragically lingered. In 1878, the toll booth was removed, and people could pass freely across, but in the 1920s, the bridge closed – the structure was becoming increasingly dangerous.
Demolished, plans were afoot to rebuild it, with new technologies to make it safer and longer-lasting. It was also clad in Portland stone, which has the remarkable ability to clean itself when it rains. Despite the start of World War II, the bridge was partly opened in 1942, and completely in 1945, although it holds the dubious distinction of being the only bridge in London damaged by bombs during the Blitz.
It also holds another remarkable distinction – one far less dubious – in that it was built primarily by women. With men all at war, the work force was mostly female and so it has gained the sometimes title of The Ladies’ Bridge in honour of the women who worked on it. My girlfriend likes to acknowledge also the fact that it remains the only London bridge to have been completed on time and under budget.
History, however, seems to have largely obscured this fact. Despite an announcement being made at its completion that thanked all the men who worked hard on its construction, it seems that generally women’s displacement from history in this area was because the records were lost, and not through malice or sexism, but one does wonder.
The most thrilling aspect of the 370 metre bridge to me though lies beneath it, rather than on it. Under its final arch on the Southbank sits a book market, one of the most delightful in the country, if not the world. Because they’re sheltered by the bridge, come rain or shine the outdoor book market is open for business, selling second hand and antique books of every genre imaginable. I’ve picked up so many bargains over the years, as well as discovering some genuine treasures.
So that’s Waterloo Bridge, a quick run down of one of the Thames’s many crossings. I daresay more will be forthcoming – we’ve got a lot of time and plenty to get through.
The wind’s been getting up a bit lately around the city, and while I was looking up some interesting facts about the history of London, I came across a report of the tornado that hit London in 2006. I had absolutely no memory of this happening – it’s not like central USA here where tornadoes and hurricanes are ten a penny – so I delved a little deeper.
On the 7th December 2006, a tornado measuring T4 on the TORRO scale (which apparently equates to 16 on the Beaufort Scale) hit Kensal Green, passing through a number of streets in just a couple of minutes, ripping roofs off of buildings, upturning cars and injuring six people. The country had been undergoing strange and unstable weather phenomena all morning, having been affected by Ulrike, a strong Atlantic low pressure system, but a tornado was just the oddest of them all. Thunderstorms had been covering Cornwall, but it all came to a head over the capital, with strong winds, sleet and rain preceding a tornado that, according to one witness, looked “amazing […] but then it touched land … [and] went from exciting to terrifying.”
This is far from the first time that the wind has got a bit much in the city. Most of Britain still talks with a certain reverence of the Great Storm of 1987. Although considered by some to be a hurricane, officially it an extratropical cyclone with hurricane force winds, though if you ask me, that amounts to the same thing anyway.
The afternoon of the 15th October hadn’t had any particularly strong winds. Michael Fish, a meteorologist who has never lived down the experience, gave the weather forecast and stated, rather flippantly, that while it was going to get a bit windy, most of it would pass over France and Spain. He said that a lady had called the BBC asking about a hurricane, but he said there wasn’t one coming. He says now he was quoted out of context, but the incident is so ingrained in the nation’s psyche – the footage even appearing during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony – that it hardly matters.
The strongest winds that night reached 120mph, and most of the south was battered beyond recognition, causing two billion pounds worth of damage in one night. Fifteen million trees were downed across the country, and London wasn’t free from any of that. Specimens of historic importance and great age were felled in such places as Kew Gardens and Hyde Park, and there was barely an avenue that didn’t have some trees knocked down, often crushing cars beneath them. The following morning, with no power across parts of the city and the public transport network down, many people stayed off work.
But let’s go further back in time, to another Great Storm. This time, the Great Storm of 1703. The calendar at the time said 26th November, but with the switch in dates later that century, it would have been equivalent to 7th December, oddly the same day as the 2006 tornado. Queen Anne was on the throne and she was led to shelter in the cellars of St James’s Palace to hide the damage to the roof. Across the city, two thousand chimney stacks were knocked down, the roof was blown off Westminster Abbey, and some seven hundred ships were blown together and destroyed in the Thames.
This being a slightly less scientific time, they did not all trust their barometers that this was something atmospheric. The church said it was because God was angry at all the sinning happening in England, Daniel Defoe said God was punishing the people for “poor performance against Catholic armies in the War of Spanish Succession”. Curiously, however, the storm may have helped the rising industry of journalism, and was the first weather event to become a national news story, with special editions of the paper listing information about the damaged and the dead.
But let’s go right back. The earliest disaster we can find. That’s the first recorded tornado of British history; the London tornado of 17th October 1091. As a bonus factoid, it was a Friday. If the one in 2006 was measured as a T4 and was destructive enough, it was nothing compared to this. Modern scientists believe it would have measured T8, which suggests winds of up to 240mph, capable of throwing cars long distances, toppling high-rises with shallow anchors, and twisting skyscrapers in their foundations.
Bear in mind, then, that in 1091 there weren’t any skyscrapers, cars or high-rise buildings, suggesting that the damage done was almost absolute. These are wind speeds that can blow wooden houses apart with ease. Despite the severity, only two people were known to have died in it. The wooden London Bridge was demolished and St Mary-le-Bow church was badly damaged. It’s popularly remarked upon that four rafters from its roof each measuring 26 feet were forced into the ground by the wind with such power that only 4 feet remained visible. The storm did little to help the reputation of William II, who had just raided the resources of the churches. The people felt the storm was a judgment on his wickedness.
But, as ever, London clawed itself back from the brink, and rebuilt itself once more. After all, this is Britain. When did we ever let a bit of bad weather bother us?
I wondered what the topic of today’s post could be for a while. It’s been a busy week in London history, as we’ve just had Bonfire Night, which links naturally to the Houses of Parliament. But I’ve decided it makes more sense to link this post to something regarding Remembrance Sunday, since that’s the day, and Armistice Day is not far away.
A cenotaph, as you may know, is an empty tomb, erected to commemorate a person, group of people, or even empire, whose remains are elsewhere. Although there are many around the world, just one that I know of would be recognised by just about every British subject – The Cenotaph. So important it doesn’t need a name, just a great big “The”.
With the Great War just over and the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919, a series of temporary wood-and-plaster structures were built to commemorate the war dead. When the Victory Parade passed, people saluted them, and in the following days, the base of the original Cenotaph was covered in flowers and wreaths. Pressure mounted on the government to keep it and, a month later, they suggested that a more permanent version would be designed, to become “Britain’s official national war monument”. The new version, made of Portland Stone, is an exact replica of its wooden predecessor.
Designed and built between 1919-1920 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is undecorated for the most part, and if you approached it from the side, you wouldn’t think it was anything special. But the front and back both feature a carved wreath and the the engraving “The Glorious Dead”. Above the wreaths are the dates of the First World War in Roman numerals. At eleven metres high and weighing some 120 tonnes, it is an impressive and staggering piece of architecture. It also has a slightly odd shape; the two sides are not parallel, and would eventually meet if you keep them going up, although it wouldn’t be for about three hundred metres.
On 11th November 1920, it was unveiled by King George V, who laid the first wreath on its stone steps. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister at the time, walked from nearby Downing Street and laid a wreath of his own. In a move that to me now seems remarkably forward, the Cenotaph was not dedicated, because they noted that not everyone who died was a Christian, and it would be disrespectful to those who weren’t to do so.
The flags on the side also were originally met with some debate, as Lutyens wanted them to be carved of stone, but he was overruled, so they’re real cloth flags. As of 2007, the flags include Union Flags, and ones to represent the army, navy, merchant navy, and air force. When the Cenotaph was new, the flags were taken down and washed every six or so weeks, and when this stopped happening, enough people complained to have the process reinstated. This is one of the many signs that people take the Cenotaph seriously. By 1939, the flags were being changed ten times a year, and washed twice before being disposed of. All the old flags are given to the Imperial War Museum.
While it could have then stood silent and unchanged since this date, it’s actually continued to adapt. When the Second World War ended, the site became a place of massive celebration, and King George VI unveiled the Cenotaph for a second time in 1946, with the dates of that war engraved on it too. It had originally just been for the First World War, but as more wars have gone on – the “war to end all wars” didn’t – the Cenotaph has come to represent all the fallen. In 1970, it was declared a Grade I listed building, which means it can never be demolished.
Most people recognise the Cenotaph now from its appearances on television every November. The closest Sunday to 11th November is Remembrance Sunday, and service personnel, politicians and the Royal family gather to remember the fallen. When Big Ben strikes eleven o’clock, the nation falls silent for two minutes, to represent the moment when, in 1918, the guns fell silent across Europe.
Those with particular power lay wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph, and it must be a person with a stone heart who doesn’t feel a chill when our Queen, the one woman who doesn’t need to bow for anyone else, steps up and does her duty. She always lays the first wreath, followed by her children and grandchildren. The Prime Minister follows next, and then other leaders of major political parties, and representatives from the navy, army and air force. Once, survivors of the First World War would have been present too, but with the last solider, Harry Patch, dying two years ago, the trenches have disappeared from living memory.
The Cenotaph is used at other times of the year too. It becomes a focal point for the country when we mark anniversaries of the D-Day landings, the first day of the Somme Offensive, the Falklands War, and campaigns marked by Anzac Day, which are the battles involving those of Australia and New Zealand. Of all the monuments in London, this is perhaps the one most ready and primed to move you and send a chill through your spine.
Other cities around the world have their own cenotaphs, some of which are replicas of this one, but once again, London led the way. I think it’s important that we remember the horrors of war, because maybe one day we’ll wake up to what this monument represents, and stop entering battles that result in pointless loss of life.
Lest we forget.
London is a city of culture, both high and low, but the hub of that culture is, of course, in the West End, an area drowned in theatres showing some of the finest performances of anywhere in the world. I love the theatre and visit as often as I can, and last week my nan and I were fortunate enough to attend The Play That Goes Wrong, which, I’m grateful to say, turned out to be one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen.
Amateur theatre can be a mixed bag, that’s certainly true. Some are as highly polished as anything on the West End, and some really have an emphasis on the “amateur” portion of the concept. The Play That Goes Wrong is a completely professional performance that gently mocks what happens when a small play by inexperienced actors starts going awry. It’s actually a play within a play, as we’re watching the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society put on their play The Murder at Haversham Manor, the aforementioned play that goes wrong.
Haversham Manor is your typical murder mystery a la Agatha Christie and the greats. A man is found dead in a large house, there are only a few other people present, and one of them is the murderer. It might even be quite a good play if it had been given to a competent set of actors. As it stands, in this play, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.
Before the show has even started, the backstage crew (actually just more actors) are sneaking across the stage, putting the final touches to the set, trying to locate the dog they need that’s gone missing, and generally preparing the actors for curtain up. It all goes downhill from there.
So begins two hours of missing props, fluffed lines, jammed doors, dodgy scenery, wrong cues, wardrobe malfunctions, overacting, injured actors and whiskey replaced with white spirit. The leading lady clearly thinks very highly of herself, the dead man is not terribly convincing, the lighting and sound guy is too busy wondering where his Duran Duran CD has gone, and the butler has had to write down difficult words on his hands, but is unable to pronounce them. The play is hysterically funny. The only other show I’ve seen that made me laugh this much was One Man, Two Guvnors.
Some of the things you completely expect to go wrong. After all, anything pinned to the wall is naturally going to fall off it, and the lift that gives access to the higher level of the stage is primed to fail, but among it there are a number of surprises, which I’ll try not to spoil now. Suffice to say, the whole thing is insane, becoming more and more deranged as the show goes on. Just when you think there’s nothing left that could possible befall the cast, something else does.
It even leaks off the stage, with an incident during the interval, and the director introducing both acts, starting the second with surprise that so many of the audience have stayed.
They always said with Les Dawson that he had to be a truly excellent pianist to be able to play so badly. Likewise Tommy Cooper was such a bad magician only because he was such a good magician. And the same is true here: these actors have to be phenomenally good to be this terrible. It’s a masterfully choreographed piece of work that requires expert timing and precision to pull off such hilarious actions.
I can do nothing but urge you to see this show. I get the feeling that, providing nothing goes wrong, it will retain its place in the West End for a very long time. Sharp, fast and wonderfully insane, it’s a brilliant concept pulled off with amazing aplomb.