How Low Can You Go?
The present Hammersmith Bridge is another suspension bridge and it boasts a water clearance of only 12 feet at high tide, making it the lowest permanent bridge over the river. It is so low that the river path only just fits below it on the Barnes bank and is prone to flooding. It is so prone to flooding, in fact, that many priceless Barnes riverside homes have a hefty built-up step in front of the threshold to hold back the regularly invading water, but that has nothing to do with the bridge, just the river.
Location, Location, Location
Hammersmith Bridge is the gaudy one just upstream of the elegantly understated Cornish granite Putney Bridge. Just further west of Hammersmith Bridge is the industrial-strength metal Barnes Railway Bridge and west of that comes the nondescript concrete-looking Chiswick Bridge. The location of Hammersmith Bridge is key to its history; something very probably true of most bridges. It connects Hammersmith, with its M4 flyover, A4 connector and manic circular traffic route, with the leafy and sedate, suburban and super-affluent London village of Barnes, and the less fortunate Roehampton beyond it.
The first Hammersmith Bridge was a timber-decked toll bridge built to a design by William Tierney Clarke and opened in 1827. Building of this new bridge began in 1825, just after a commemorative and thankfully bloodless 'sacrificial offering'. The then Duke of Sussex, Augustus Frederick, in the presence of the Grand Lodge at a Masonic Ceremony in May 1825, is reported to have incanted the following while pouring corn over a brass plate fixed on one of the 'coffer dams into which had been placed gold coins and a silver trowel':
I have poured the corn, the oil and the wine, emblems of wealth, plenty and comfort, so may the bridge tend to communicate prosperity and wealth.
This current bridge was built to replace the old one according to a design by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and finally opened in 1887.
On a Bit, Off a Bit...
Although visually impressive, the present Hammersmith Bridge has never been particularly strong:
- In 1984, an overloaded lorry caused significant damage to the by-then 100-year-old structure on its juggernauting journey over the bridge.
- In 1992, a weight limit was finally imposed, banning all heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and double decker buses.
- In February 1997, the bridge was shut to all 'non-essential' traffic pending its repair, a period during which Barnes enjoyed the relative peace and quiet of a bridge giving access only to emergency vehicles, pedestrians, buses, motorbikes and bicycles.
- After two years, the repairs were finally complete and the bridge reopened to the collective displeasure of Barnes residents who had enjoyed a 40% reduction in emissions over the period (at the expense of Putney and Fulham, it must be said).
- Less than a year and a small bomb later, the bridge was to shut again with many locals whispering behind closed doors as to the motive and identity of the perpetrators. For all its small size, the bomb, or rather its explosion, was heard over a mile away at the other end of Barnes by one of our very own h2g2 Researchers.
Not only has it historically proven weak, Hammersmith Bridge has also always been too narrow for the requirements of modern traffic and when it reopened once again later in 2000 with resplendent night lighting, it did so subject to a width limit (banning HGVs again) as well as a weight limit of 7.5 tons. A traffic light system prioritising buses was also implemented.
Bombs on the Bridge
It has been said that the much-publicised weakness of the bridge caused it to be targeted by the IRA who allegedly attempted to bomb it three times.
- In 1939, a local ladies' hairdresser by the name of Maurice Childs, while on his lunch break (or maybe early morning after an all-nighter), spotted a smoking suitcase and immediately threw it over the side of the bridge. As he walked away to report it, locals say he was drenched by spray from the explosion. Some insist he was spattered with dirty river water. Others vow, and it was reported in the press, that he had got to the phone booth and only heard the explosion. Except there were two explosions, another bomb blew out the girders under the bridge. Either way, Mr Childs was later awarded an MBE for his courage.
- In 1996, Hammersmith Bridge hosted the largest Semtex bomb ever found on mainland Britain (32lb). Happily, the bomb failed to explode.
- Lastly, in 2000, a small bomb placed under the lower mall managed to cause some damage to a supporting girder, causing the bridge to be shut completely.
The Diva Bridge: Eye Candy, or Eyesore?
Hammersmith Bridge has an organic structure that seems to flow and pour across the river. Its portals are huge archways and the whole bridge is painted in green with gold trim. Many assume the colour scheme is a reference to the Harrods depository (now Harrods Village, a gated community) just up the bank on the Barnes side. The bridge has rather unkindly been likened to a super-sized Harrods shopping bag by an unprepared visitor in the presence of another h2g2 Researcher.
The bridge is flanked with pedestrian walkways formed like viewing galleries complete with convenient spots for sitting down. This is a favourite vantage point from which to watch the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race. Apparently, the boats aim for the second lamppost from the support nearest the Barnes side. It appears the complicated reason for this has something to do with the available head clearance, the depth of the water, underwater currents and the curve of the river as it heads downriver towards Putney Bridge.
Hammersmith Bridge has its passionate admirers who insist vociferously that it is the most beautiful bridge on the River Thames. Others are more inclined to describe it as:
Really quite nuts, and certainly more flouncy (if not bouncy) than the earlier suspension bridge.
- Chris Roberts in his book Cross River Traffic.
Either way, it really has to be seen to be believed, especially when lit up in the dark.
You can get a great view of Hammersmith Bridge from the riverside pubs just to the west - 'The Blue Anchor' and 'The Rutland' on Lower Mall and 'The Dove' on Upper Mall - especially from the benches outside on a sunny day. I'm particularly fond of the Blue Anchor, it's a lovely old little boozer with a zinc bar top and the beer there is brilliant.
- A dedicated h2g2 Researcher.