London Bridge is (sometimes) Falling Down…

London Bridge Model

One of the difficulties of writing historical fiction is the lack of pictorial and other evidence – photos, newsreels, podcasts etc, which means the images we can get our hands on are so much more meaningful. And then of course, there are the wonderfully talented people who turn their talents to building realistic models (such as in the above image), which are enormously helpful.

Conversely, one of the attractions of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to do a bit of research myself and then simply use my imagination. In the second book of my ‘Maps of Time’ series (set in 1630s London), I wanted to include a few details about London Bridge in order to describe it realistically:

The noise is deafening. Hordes of chattering, shouting people constrict the two lanes that form an unacknowledged corridor across the vast structure, the narrow track carving a tricky path through and in-between the dozens of shops and houses that line the great bridge.

The most famous version of the bridge was built under the command of Henry II, who presumably had grown a bit tired of the old wooden ones burning down. The new bridge took around 30 years to build and stood on 20 gothic arches. Merchants and would-be householders vied for construction space and over the years a great many houses, shops and even a church were constructed on the bridge itself. The unfortunate lack of space demanded that some houses were as high as seven storeys!

One of the details I was most interest in was the kind of experience Londoners might have had in crossing the bridge. The thousands of people whose daily lives required them to be at one side of the river or the other, meant that two lanes had to be created – one heading north and the other south – providing (you might think) a fairly practical solution to congestion. However, the proliferation of carts, animals and people jostling for space, made the journey of 300 yards (approx one tenth of a mile) a time-consuming process. It wasn’t uncommon to take an hour or more to walk from one end to the other.

The popular version of the song ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is said to be inspired by the many incidents of fire and other catastrophes that resulted from the generally poor upkeep of the bridge. Indeed, in 1269 the less-than-popular Queen Eleanor is thought to have spent the toll money earmarked for bridge repairs on her own pleasures, leading to all sorts of calamities.

One of the bridge’s more gruesome traditions was the monarchy’s penchant for popping the head of traitors and other rapscallions on spikes above the gatehouse. The likes of Oliver Cromwell, William Wallace and Guy Fawkes found themselves on the wrong side of the popularity stakes, but their severed heads no doubt helped keep the list of would-be ne-er-do-wells to a minimum.

Thankfully, no-one gets beheaded in The Architect’s Apprentice or the follow-up, Mortlake, though there are one or two folk who don’t live to see the end of the story! Cue: evil laugh – Mwah, hah, hah…

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