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London bridge (part two)
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Wooden bridges constantly required attention, as the wood decayed and needed replacement, and there was the constant risk of damage by floods or other natural disasters. The bridge had to be rebuilt after a storm severely damaged it in 1097, and again in around 1136 after it was badly burnt in a fire that destroyed most of the port. By the late twelfth century London was a prosperous community, making its money from the export of wool and cloth, so it was decided to replace the old wooden bridge with a more permanent stone structure, which would be much more expensive to build, but cheaper to maintain.This was a time when massive castles and cathedrals were being built, so there was plenty of experience available for such a major construction as the new bridge. The building of bridges in the Middle Ages was considered a work of piety, and the Church was often involved in their construction. London's new stone bridge was built under the guidance of Peter de Colechurch, priest of St Mary Colechurch, who had carried out the last rebuilding of the wooden bridge. Although the start of the construction is not recorded, it is thought that it was begun in 1176 and lasted over thirty years, being completed in 1209, four years after Peter's death. It is quite likely that the old timber bridge was retained during at least some of its construction. It has been said that the bridge was built on woolpacks, as Henry II imposed a tax on wool to fund its construction, though further funds were supplied by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Papal Legate.

The bridge was about 906 feet long and 20 feet wide, and it had nineteen irregularly spaced piers, each sitting on large platforms or cutwaters, usually referred to as 'starlings'. There were twenty arches, varying in width from 15 to 34 feet, plus a drawbridge towards the Southwark end. The variation in the width of the arches has been much commented on and may have been due to the difficulty in finding firm ground to drive in the piles. Building the bridge was a massive undertaking, and one that could be highly dangerous, and as many as 150 men may have died during its construction. As there was no stone available locally, it had to be brought in from elsewhere, which added to the cost. The main stone used was Kentish ragstone, Purbeck stone from Dorset and Reigate stone from Surrey. The Thames, much wider then than it is today, is tidal, so that much of the work had to be carried out at low tide, and during the winter months the work could be damaged by floods and ice. The method of building the piers is known to us because detailed plans were made when the bridge was being demolished in the nineteenth century. An oval of short piles was driven in first, using a man-powered pile-driver balanced on two boats. This was then filled with rubble, so that they could build a bigger pile-driver on top of it. Using this, they built the starling, consisting of protective rows of longer piles round the outside, filling the gap with more rubble. It was on this platform that the stone piers were built, each block being made secure with an iron clamp and the joints sealed with pitch. To construct the arches, temporary wooden frames, or centrings, were built to support the work until the arch was finished.

At the southern end of the bridge were two fortified towers, the Stonegate and the Drawbridge Gate, which defended the city from attack from the south. There may well have been domestic houses on the bridge from the very beginning, as their rents were needed to help pay for the bridge's upkeep, and building space within the city's protective walls was at a premium. There were shops and businesses of all sorts along both sides of the roadway, including several inns, and the bridge would have looked just like any other busy city street. Indeed, because the houses were so tightly packed together, some visitors to London in later centuries claimed that they had found their way on to the bridge without realising it. Over one hundred inhabited bridges were built in Europe in the Middle Ages, but London Bridge was by far the longest and it was considered to be one of the wonders of the medieval world.


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