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London bridge (part two)


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London bridge (part seven)
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One of the biggest changes to the look of the bridge came in 1577, when the Drawbridge Gate, which was in a poor state, was demolished and replaced by Nonesuch House, so-called because there was no other like it. It was a highly ornate half-timbered building, with turrets at each corner, each one topped by a cupola and a gilded weathervane. Like many Elizabethan houses, there were so many windows that the walls seemed to be all glass, and it was covered in intricately carved woodwork and colorful decoration. No nails were used in its construction, and it was made in sections in Holland before being shipped across the Channel and put together rather like a modern flatpack.

London bridge (part seven)

Old London Bridge, a watercolor by J. M. W. Turner, from about 1794, showing the eighteenth-century balustrade and one of the stone refuges.

In 1633 forty-two houses at the north end of the bridge were destroyed by a fire that had started in a house near St Magnus' Church when a maidservant carelessly left a tub of hot ashes under the stairs. In 1645 new, more modern buildings were erected over the northern part of the affected area, leaving a gap that would save the bridge from destruction only a few years later. In the Great Fire of 1666 the new buildings were destroyed as well as St Magnus' Church, though the bridge itself survived more or less intact, the main casualty being the waterworks at the north end. More seriously, the wreckage blocked the roadway, preventing the citizens from escaping over the bridge. The destroyed houses were rebuilt in 1683, according to the new strict guidelines for new houses in London after the fire, and the houses at the southern end of the bridge were later rebuilt in the same style, so beginning the change in the appearance of the bridge. (In 1640 a wealthy parishioner of St Magnus left money in her will for a sermon to be preached every year to thank God for preserving the church in the 1633 fire. Unsurprisingly, the custom was discontinued after 1666 but it has recently been revived.)

The carriageway of the bridge had been only 12 to 15 feet wide, barely enough for two vehicles to pass each other. As there were no pavements, it must have been very dangerous for pedestrians crossing the bridge, and they often found it safer to walk behind a vehicle. When the houses at the northern end were rebuilt following the fires of 1633 and 1666, they overhung the river even more than before, allowing the roadway to be widened, and later the whole roadway was widened as all the houses were replaced. To be able to widen the carriageway, the houses were built out on to the piers, hiding the arches from view, making the bridge look less attractive than before. When the Stonegate was rebuilt in 1728, its archway was widened to help keep the traffic moving. From 1722 tolls were charged on vehicles crossing the bridge, and three people were employed to make sure that they drove across the bridge on the left, the first time a 'keep left' rule, which we now take for granted, was enforced in England. In 1749, before Westminster Bridge had been completed, so many people wanted to attend the dress rehearsal of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens that there was a three-hour traffic jam on London Bridge.

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