I was looking forward to attending a matinée of Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National Theatre on the Southbank which I thought was going to be the highlight of my day. After all, it is not every day that you see Elizabeth McGovern in the flesh! Some of you may have been introduced to this talented American actress as Cora Crawley in the TV drama Downton Abbey, but my first memory of her was from the classic Once Upon a Time in America alongside Robert De Niro, many moons ago!
Anyway, the point I am trying to make is this: Yes, it is quite exciting to see a famous actress standing a few feet away from you, but what really impressed me that afternoon was not the theatre and the arts, nor the Southbank’s eclectic vibe; but the bridges: A whole series of them, standing over the River Thames, the heartbeat of London! They were captivating—a network of extraordinary engineering, and my mind wandered. I fell into some sort of reverie as I walked across what I later learnt to be the Golden Jubilee Bridges.
I found myself particularly drawn to the Hungerford bridge, a steel truss railway bridge, which lies between the Golden Jubilee Bridges, and the collection of these lie in turn between Waterloo Bridge and Westminster Bridge; and I imagined the work it would have taken to complete this masterpiece! The germ of an idea turning into drafts then into a real design with a plan, with all the resources involved to complete it and erect into this imposing structure which commanded respect. I gently ran my hand on the steel, cool to the touch, yet evoking a feeling of timelessness. It was beautiful, just as beautiful as a work of art, a sculpture, an unforgiving art!
I used my iPhone to capture a couple of pictures, making sure that I did not to linger as I did not want to take advantage of my friend’s patience, who stopped with me every time, perhaps wondering what it was that I found so fascinating. I wanted to hold on to the memory of the overwhelming awe which I felt while I walked over or under a bridge all these previous years, and which had impressed me but not to this point, on that specific afternoon! The Lions Gate Bridge, another beautiful suspension bridge, which connects the City of Vancouver to the North Shore; Brooklyn Bridge, a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge in New York City…. Was it some sort of new love affair with bridges that was emerging, which lay dormant all these years, for one reason or another? Or was it the sheer fact that I was aware of my surroundings, ‘seeing’, my mind too wise to be busying itself with things that did not matter anymore.
Sitting in bed with my laptop that evening, I decided to find out more about these bridges. I learnt that the original Hungerford Bridge was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was an English mechanical and civil engineer and that he is is considered "one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history". That it was opened in May 1845 as a suspension footbridge and was replaced by a new railway bridge which opened in 1864. The new structure was designed by Sir John Hawkshaw, and comprises nine spans made of wrought iron lattice girders. Its chains were re-used to complete the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which links Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset, and which still stands. The original brick pile buttresses of Brunel's footbridge are still in use and The buttress on the South Bank side still has the entrances and steps from the original steamer pier Brunel built on to the footbridge
The two bridges on either side of the Hungerford Bridge are are cable-stayed pedestrian bridges and were completed in 2002. They are called Golden Jubilee Bridges although they are still referred to as the "Hungerford Footbridges". Their construction was complicated by the need to keep the railway bridge operating without interruptions, the Bakerloo Line tunnels passing only a few feet under the river bed, and the potential danger of unexploded World War II bombs in the Thames mud.
I also found this interesting article in the Guardian about an image dating back to 1845, the oldest in the vast collection of the Museum of London which “marks two points in history: image which the pioneering amateur photographer William Henry Fox Talbot's first success in permanently fixing a photographic image in a salt print; and Isambard Kingdom Brunel's newly completed Hungerford bridge.”
I fell asleep with a pleasant and almost peaceful feeling as I recalled the multitude of simple pleasures of that afternoon spent in the company of a good friend: The theatre, sweet potato fries on the Southbank, and indeed, the Hungerford Bridge.
Perhaps I should explore my fascination with lighthouses next!