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.
This week, I hit the streets of London again to visit two places that I’ve had on my list for a while. It was a nice day, not especially warm given that we’re into the final days of October, but the wind was bracing and I decided that I would walk to my destinations. Arriving at London Bridge, I felt I might be in it for the long haul, as first I needed to get to Islington.
The walk was satisfyingly long, but I got to crunch through autumn leaves most of the way there, passing through areas of London I’m far less familiar with. That in itself is always exciting.
I eventually found my first stop – Present & Correct, a stationers without compare. If you follow my other blog, you’ll know that I’ve just read a book called Adventures In Stationery, a history of everything in your pencil case. (Believe me, it’s far nerdier – and far better – than it sounds.) At the back was a note that he liked this stationery shop. When I saw a few days later an article about the same place, I decided that it was time to turn up myself and have a look, being a sucker for a good notebook or pen.
Tucked away down Arlington Way, its name stencilled onto the glass in small gold letters and no banner signage over the door to indicate what it is, Present & Correct seems to shun the limelight. You know it’s a stationers though before you even look inside; in the window are giant pencils and an enormous blue and pink eraser.
Although small, the shop is packed with goodies. I have read that the two owners travel Europe (and perhaps further) in their quest for new products to sell, so there’s a fairly eclectic mix of stuff here, from unusual paper clips, curiously lined notebooks, reels of brightly coloured tape and gorgeous children’s books. If you’re really into stationery, then pop in and fill your boots (although maybe not literally) with some of the fanciest pencils, pads, scissors and bulldog clips in the world. I wish I could say that I bought something in here, but I found myself unable to justify the price of anything. But then again, I don’t think it’s the sort of place where you go if you need something. You go because you want it.
One thing I can always justify the price of, though, is wine. Thanks to that current bastion of pop culture and important knowledge, Buzzfeed, I had discovered The Fable, a book-themed bar near Holborn. I walked here from Present & Correct, feeling that the walk would make me feel less guilty about any alcohol I consumed at, what was, lunchtime.
It was a fair old walk (although did include me passing a hairdressers called Barber Streisand) but the bar is situated near the Holborn Viaduct, a short walk from Chancery Lane station. The bar/restaurant is on three levels, and has street seating too, meaning its capacity is enormous. I descended to the bottom level, past walls papered with book pages and a general feeling of happiness and warmth. Once below, it was quite busy, but I found a high table, adopted my position on the stool with a glass of wine and got out my book. This was the real reason for wanting to come here; it’s meant to be a great place to sit and read. And it was, save for the fact I accidentally got too drunk, which is never a great look by yourself.
The first glass of Pinot Grigio went down too quickly, but when I got up to the bar to ask for some food, the barman who had served me first merely said, “Another large one?” They had me pegged. But I ordered some chips and within five minutes – that’s no exaggeration – they had arrived. I can’t vouch for the rest of the menu, but the chips were great, and other people seemed to be tucking in heartily to their lunches, although the majority of people there were in business dress and just drinking. From what I gathered, the restaurant was on the floor above me.
I did then accidentally get a second large glass of wine, so while some memories of the place are a little wobbly, I do know that it’s a charming, warm and friendly bar. The staff were all excellent, sharp and efficient. I didn’t get the name of the guy who had been serving me, but to the chap in the pastel blue-and-pink checked shirt last Thursday, you were excellent. Although the book theme isn’t overtly pronounced, it crops up in a few places. Most notably (see right) in the booth that is made out of stacks of books presumably glued together. I would have loved to tuck myself away in there for the afternoon, but given that it’s a table for six-to-eight and was already occupied when I arrived, it wasn’t really possible. A really nice touch happened before I left, when my bill was handed to me, not on a tray, but tucked inside an old hardback. And hanging high up above us was the beautiful quotation, “Once in a while right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairy tale”, which seemed charming and a lovely sentiment.
After leaving, I then spent a slightly tipsy but enjoyable afternoon traversing the city’s bookshops, but that’s a story for an entirely different post, so for now I’ll call an end to this. But hopefully this post shows that if you are a keen reader, writer or designer, there’s more to do in London than attend writing classes or browse bookshops. It’s a city with a rich literary history – if not the richest in the world – and so it has constructed itself to reflect this. And I for one couldn’t be happier about it.