The long way round is sometimes the best way forward.
As a pedestrian, I never gave any of the London bridges a second thought: they were cold and windy places that I walked over quickly. In a bus, I glanced up for a few seconds from my book to look at the view and that was that. But as a cyclist, they have a special place in my heart, apart from the fact, of course, that under a bridge lives the most exciting place in London. I look forward to cycling across the Thames. The full force of the wind gets the blood flowing to my cheeks, it hits me and I hit back as I gather speed on the down slope, and for a short time I live in the moment. Each bridge has its own personality: Waterloo is modern and straightforward, Westminster is in the heart of things, with its sweet but annoying ice-cream vans and tourists, Tower Bridge is monumental and bumpy, Blackfriars strives to live up to its bad reputation, Vauxhall is a dangerous no-no. Judging from other riders’ accounts, I am not the only one who finds these landmarks a fascinating piece of engineering.
I suspect that for many commuters, though, they’re simply a passage obligé, a prerequisite to get to and from work. There’s no way to get around them! Neither the Thames cable car nor the quaint Greenwich foot tunnel are as convenient – nor do they quite possess the same aura. If ‘commuting cyclists outnumber cars for the first time’ on some of London’s busiest bridges, to quote a Sunday Times headline back in 2011, and streams of cyclists take over the space during the rush hour, it’s not out of choice but necessity. One only has to witness the massive knock-on effect and traffic congestion caused by the closure of just one bridge to realise how essential they are.
Bridges have often been singled-out by cycle campaigners, but it’s not good news. The truth is there is a price to pay for the view: they are collision black spots, bottlenecks which sport outdated motorway-style road designs and often dangerous junctions at both ends. They are a bone of contention, a fact epitomised by the months-long Blackfriars Bridge protests and flashrides in 2011. Much as I enjoy riding over bridges, I agree: they can be unpleasant and tricky to negotiate and you definitely need your wits within reach.
Yet. During a brief bout of commuting into Central London last winter, I would cycle slowly up the incline and reach the high point of Waterloo Bridge in the morning, slightly out of breath, to be greeted by the Shell Mex House clock on the other side of the river, which marked the beginning of the end of my ride, another ten minutes North to Oxford Street. This was the highlight of my journey. I would then pause – or at least my mind would, not my legs – and from this modest height survey the view, take in the magnificent London skyline and the wonderful panorama of the river. At night, on the way back, I’d enjoy the sense of space and admire the lights shining along the riverside. Time stood still. Then I would let it go, watch it fly past as I was pedalling away, in my very own road movie.
Then I reached the other side. ‘And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him’ goes one haunting intertitle of Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire film. Bridges are that in-between space marking the boundary between North and South: they both link and delineate the two sides of the city. For a South Londoner, crossing the river signals the arrival into the thick of things, the busy centre, with its crowds and maze of one-way streets. The prospect of going southwards is rather different: I am back on home ground, on familiar territory. Wider roads, more room, suburbia. Bridges put things into perspective. They give me spatial awareness, a sense of where I am in London and in relation to the cardinal points, to world geography. They connect me to the whole city, to the bigger picture. They remind me why I live here and how much I love it.