LONDON BRIDGE: a moving story
The very first London Bridge was built by the Romans in wood sometime between 100 A.D. and 400 A.D. In 1014, two Norwegian kings burnt this down to divide their foes, the Danish in Britain. A stone bridge began to be built in 1176 after another wooden bridge had been destroyed by a gale. Soon after its construction, houses began to be built on it.
This structure had nineteen arches and a drawbridge. It survived, albeit with many modifications and repairs, until the early nineteenth century. However, between 1758 and 1762, the houses and other structures (including a chapel) were removed from it. In 1823, construction of a new stone bridge with five arches was started upstream of the old bridge. It was opened in 1831. In the early 1970s, this bridge was demolished, and replaced by a three-arched concrete one, which remains in use today. (For more details of the history of the bridges, see “The London Encyclopaedia”, ed. by B Weinreb & C Hibbert.)
Recently, my friend T Freeman suggested that I visit the Haytor region on Dartmoor in Devon. I went there twice. Once on a day, when the rocky formation known as ‘Haytor’ (and most of Dartmoor) was completely hidden by dense swirling mists, and the second time in bright sunshine. Haytor is a granite hill surmounted by six well-weathered granite rocky outcrops that look a bit like giant chimneys. Just beneath this hill, there is a disused quarry, which provided most of the granite used to build the 19th century London Bridge.
Within the UK, granite, which is a hardy, durable rock, but carve-able with some difficulty, is found in its greatest concentrations in Devon and Cornwall. There are also significant deposits of it in some parts of eastern Scotland. During the nineteenth century, extraction of most building granite was:
“…centred on the Dartmoor (Haytor quarry), Bodmin (Cheesewring and De Lank quarries), St Austell (Luxullian quarry), Penryn (Carnsew & Penryn quarries) and Penzance areas.” (See: http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/rockofages/rockofages.htm).
Much of the granite from Haytor Quarry was used in nineteenth century municipal building projects. However, the quarry is located a long way from most cities, especially from London where its stone was used to construct the 1831 five-arched London Bridge. Walking up to the quarry, which is over 500 feet above sea-level, is difficult enough, but the prospect of getting heavy pieces of granite from there to London in the early nineteenth century must have seemed a daunting challenge. But, human ingenuity is legendary.
In 1765, James Templer (1722-1782) bought the Stover Estate, on which he built his Stover House using granite from the Haytor Quarry, which was on his estate. His son James Templer (1748-1813) had a son George Templer (1781-1843), who devised a method for facilitating the transportation of granite from the quarries on Dartmoor to places where it was needed such as London.
In 1792, George’s father, James ‘junior’, built a canal, the Stover Canal, from Ventiford near Stover House to Newton Abbott, which is on the River Teign that opens out to a long, broad sea-filled estuary. At first, this was used to transport the valuable, fine clay (‘ball’ or ‘white’ clay, which was in great demand at the time) that was extracted in huge amounts from the area around the Stover estate.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century when there was a great market for granite to be used in construction, George Templer became involved. At first, the pieces of granite had to be carried across difficult terrain:
“…by horse and cart down to Teignmouth and as before this proved costly and time consuming.”
(See the very informative: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/haytor_quarries.htm).
George devised an ingenious solution, when he was granted a contract to supply stone to build the new (1830) London Bridge. He decided to build a tramway to transport the granite from his quarries to the Stover Canal. As iron was not available locally, he decided to make the rails out of granite. In 1820, his Haytor Granite Tramway was opened. It runs for over eight miles from the quarries, down the steep slopes of Dartmoor, to the canal terminus at Ventiford. One source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1002528) describes this amazing tram way in some detail:
“The tramway utilised stone sets instead of iron rails and was opened in 1820 by George Templer. It survives as a series of parallel lines of rectangular granite sets with flanges and rebates cut along the upper outside edges placed end to end on a level track bed. Individual sets vary in length to allow for curves in the track. The gauge of the tramway measures 1.25m. Originally, it extended over eight and a half miles in length connecting the granite quarries to Ventiford Basin where the stone was transferred to barges. The steep gradient of some stretches of the route as well as other natural and artificial obstructions had major implications in engineering for several sections of the track bed requiring the use of cuttings and embankments. At several places points were used to divert wagons onto different branches. The tramway remained in use until about 1858.”
The granite was carried on wagons guided by men. On flattish sections, horses were used to pull the wagons. London Bridge was constructed using pieces of granite that were carved to exacting specifications in the quarries. They were numbered according to a pre-determined scheme devised by the bridge’s designer Sir J Rennie (1794-1874), and then transported to the canal by means of the tramway. Then barges on the canal carried them to Newton Abbot, where they were put on board seagoing vessels bound for London. In London, the numbered pieces of stone were assembled according to a plan to construct the bridge. The 1830 London Bridge was, in effect, pre-fabricated in the quarries around Haytor.
The granite tramway has been remarkably durable. Many traces of it may be seen today by following a walkers’ path called ‘The Templer Way’. I have not walked the length of this, but have seen some of its highlights.
Haytor Quarry, which I visited close to Haytor, but slightly to the north of its peak, is a short walk from a helpful visitors’ centre on the B3387. After passing through a wooden gate, a rough path leads down into the quarry which is surrounded by granite cliffs peppered with occasional plants: ferns, bushes, grass, and trees. The base of the quarry, a wild luxuriant ‘garden’, contains an irregularly shaped ‘pond’ on which water lilies were growing. There is little evidence that this peaceful secluded area was once a busy hive of activity. Apart from a rusting winch, a few bits of ironwork embedded in rocks, and one or two rocks with parallel grooves that were used to split them from other bits of granite, which found their way into the structure of London Bridge, it would be hard to divine the industrial nature of the history of this place.
I was curious to discover where the tramway began in the quarry, but saw nothing that could give me a clue as to its whereabouts. Later, I discovered on a map surveyed in 1885 that the tramway began at the north-east point of the quarry, headed northwards for a short distance, and then joined the main tramway that led eastwards from several other local quarries. The 1885 map, which marks the tramway as being ‘disused’, shows that there were quite a few tramways around Haytor. These converged to form the main ‘line’ that wound its way eastwards to the canal at Ventiford.
Quite near the visitors’ centre mentioned above, there is an easily accessible stretch of the tramway, where one can examine the carved granite rails while, also, getting a great view across Dartmoor and southern Devon, mists allowing.
Until 2015 (see: https://www.devonnewscentre.info/new-evidence-of-the-haytor-granite-tramroad-revealed-at-ventiford-canal-basin/), there was little visible evidence of where the tramway met the canal. In 2015, archaeological excavations at Ventiford Basin uncovered a series of tramway ‘sidings’ that ended at the edge of the old, now disused, Stover Canal. The granite tracks divided, and then re-divided to form multiple sidings, just like the steel railway tracks in a modern railway yard. Whereas steel rails can be moved to divert trains from one track to another, granite cannot be used this way. To guide wagons from one granite track to another:
“…were diverted using a metal shoe which levered the wheels over to the desired direction.”
The granite was loaded onto canal barges, which travelled along the Stover Canal to Newton Abbot. On the way, they had to pass through locks. The ruins of one of these can be seen at Teigngrace.
A little further downstream at Teignbridge, where the Exeter Road crosses the canal, there is a lovely bridge decorated with two carved stone animal heads. This bridge is, incidentally, very close to a still functioning clay pit.
From Newton Abbot, the granite bridge elements were shipped to London, and the bridge was completed. The 1830 London Bridge served London until 1967, but over the years it began sinking. In 1967, the Common Council of the City of London decided that the bridge needed to be replaced. Between 1967 and 1972, a replacement was constructed in pre-stressed concrete.
In 1967, the Council put Rennie’s 1830 bridge up for sale. It was bought for US$ 2,460,000 by Robert P McCulloch (1911-1977). It was carefully dismantled, and each piece was numbered. While this was being done, some of the original numbering, which was placed on the pieces whilst they were still in the Haytor Quarry, were discovered. The pieces were shipped to the USA. They travelled across the Atlantic, then through the Panama Canal, to the Pacific, before being landed in California. Then, they were carried by truck inland to Arizona (see: “London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing” by T Elborough).
In January 1994, my wife and I travelled to Arizona from California. After seeing the Grand Canyon under snow – very beautiful – we travelled southwards into the warmer climes of southern Arizona. We left the Grand Canyon in arctic conditions, spent a night in Sedona, famed for its ‘energy vortices’, which some credulous individuals (including me!) claim to be able to feel. From there, we headed southwest into to even warmer weather, arriving at Lake Havasu City on the oasis-like Lake Havasu the Arizona shore of the Colorado River. A roadside sign informed us that the city was “established in 1963”. It was built on land bought by Robert P McCulloch.
Our reason for visiting Lake Havasu City was to see the ‘old’ London Bridge. We arrived at a hotel just in time to be served dinner. I ordered New York Strip Steaks, and when the waitress served them she asked me whether I wanted, what sounded to me like, “O Juice”. I had never been offered orange juice with beefsteak before, so I asked the waitress what it was. She replied: “It is kind of like gravy”, and it was. She had mispronounced the French ‘au jus’. Soon after we began eating, the waitress and other staff began closing-down the restaurant for the night. According to our watches, it was only 8.30 pm. After asking why the place shut so early, we learnt that it was 9.30 pm in Arizona. Our watches had been set to California time; we had crossed into another time-zone.
Next morning, we walked onto ‘old’ London Bridge, the one that Rennie had built in 1830 using granite from Haytor. Lake Havasu City is built on the eastern shore of a wide part of the Colorado River, known as Lake Havasu. The lake and the city is surrounded by desolate hills. London Bridge connects the city with a large island in the lake. When we visited it in 1994, there was little on the island except a few houses built in an attempt to imitate ‘Ye Olde England’ and a retired red London Transport double-decker bus. The bus had been modified to become a refreshment stall.
London Bridge looked splendid against the blue waters of the lake and the almost cloudless sky. We walked along it from the city to its far end that stood in what looked like ‘nowhere’. The view from it across the lake to the distant hills was magnificent. Flanked by the occasional palms and other desert vegetation, the bridge looked like an extravagant folly. Yet, it was not. McCulloch knew what he was doing when he bought London Bridge. He wanted to attract settlers to his new town, and to do that he needed an attraction to draw people there. Just as a leaning tower draws people to visit Pisa, and Disney’s attractions draw them to Orlando, London bridge did the same for Lake Havasu City. His investment paid off.
Having seen the bridge in Arizona, I was most excited to see the quarry in Devon where its component parts were originally carved. I wonder what the men who manoeuvred the stones down the granite tramway would have thought had they known that the fruits of their labours would end up in a city in Arizona, surrounded, like the quarry, by huge sparsely inhabited spaces. I hope that they would have been pleased that their work resulted in the production of a fine bridge rather than a simple Dartmoor bridge like the ‘Clapper Bridge’ near Postbridge on the moor.