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.
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.
The London Underground has existed in some form or another since 1863. London has since sprung up around it and the tracks of the world’s first underground railway have spread throughout the city from the centre, out to its edges. Because of its long-standing history and being present during several great upheavals in British history such as the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz, many people are convinced that parts of it are haunted.
They may be right.
We can’t say for sure that people are haunting the platforms, but what we do know is that there are certainly ghost stations. I don’t mean in the sense of a Twilight Zone station that only exists during a full moon (though I wouldn’t be totally surprised if London did have a few of them), but simply stations that used to adorn the network and that familiar map, but have since been closed, demolished, moved or simply cut off.
Some of these were closed due to a lack of use. Anyone who knows the edges of London well will know that the District Line stops at Ealing Broadway in the west and Upminster in the east. But between 1883 and 1885, the line went as far out west as Windsor. On the other side, the line carried on out until Shoeburyness, closing in 1939. There simply wasn’t the demand at the time and the lines have now been reused by the overground network, meaning that it’s unlikely the two extremities will ever be reconnected to the tube network.
The south of the network has remained largely unchanged and, actually, there are no ghost stations south of the Thames, but to the north it’s a different matter entirely. The Central line reached up to Ongar until 1994, and the Metropolitan line has had fourteen stations lopped off its western end. Where it now terminates at Amersham, it used to carry on though Stoke Mandeville and out as far as the village of Brill. The Brill station was opened in 1872 and the travelling time to get into the City of London was two hours, meaning that it was closed, and then demolished, in 1935. Amersham became the terminus in 1961 with the closure of Great Missenden, which is still in use by Chiltern Railways. Great Missenden is notable for being the stop usually used by Prime Ministers if travelling to Chequers by train.
While most of the ghost stations have since been commandeered by National Rail or demolished, leaving no trace of their former selves, a few have found themselves develop new purposes. York Road still sits empty on the Piccadilly line between King’s Cross and Caledonian Road, and while it saw little use during its lifetime and closed in 1932, it now serves as an emergency exit from the tunnels, with one passageway lit at all times, just in case. The Central line’s Blake Hall still exists but now as a private residence, and when the new Osterley station was built on the Piccadilly line, the old one became a retail unit.
The most notable of these closed stations though is Aldwych. Once a weird little offshoot of Holborn, it was opened in 1907 but by 1962 was only open during peak hours. In 1994 it closed altogether – the lifts needed replacing and it wasn’t worth it, given its lack of use – but no one was in a hurry to demolish it. In fact, while you might not know the name, you’ve almost certainly seen inside Aldwych station. It is the one that is most often used in television and films to substitute every other station. It has stood in as a backdrop for such films as V for Vendetta, Creep, Atonement, 28 Weeks Later, Battle of Britain, and last year turned up on an episode of Sherlock. It even appears in the game Tomb Raider III, and the video for The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” was filmed here. A train is kept on the track permanently for filming purposes.
Like several other stations, Aldwych is notable because during both world wars, disused parts of the station were used to store art from the city’s galleries. It’s well known, of course, that during the Blitz, scared Londoners would use the tunnels and tube network as ready-made bomb shelters, but it wasn’t just the everyday citizens. This brings us to Down Street, situated between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park. It was closed in 1932, and in 1939 the platform faces were bricked up and the place was divided into meeting rooms, offices and bedrooms. This became the bunker for Winston Churchill and his cabinet during the height of the Second World War. Safe below ground, he could control the war in absolute safety.
One final station that is no longer with us is one that I like simply because it’s named after one of the best buildings in London: British Museum. Originally on the Central line, and opened in 1900, it was threatened fairly quickly by the introduction of Holborn station, just one hundred yards away. At the time the two lines (Holborn was originally just on the Piccadilly line, but now also is connected to the Central line) were owned by different companies. A foot tunnel to connect the two was proposed originally, but in the end it was decided that Holborn was better located and so it was expanded and in 1933, British Museum closed. The surface building was demolished and, below ground, it’s only used for storage. Next time you’re passing between Tottenham Court Road and Chancery Lane, take a peek out the window and you might spot stacks of railway sleepers.
The ghost stations of London are a reminder that while the city is always growing and always improving, it isn’t afraid to make a few errors now and again. Sometimes the past has to be removed to make way for the future.