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Harringay, Haringey - So Good they Spelt it Twice!

(Image: ©Katie Wignall)

I recently discovered a model of the wonderful medieval London Bridge in a Wren Church near to the Monument. Chatting during my visit with the very friendly and informative Father Phillip Warner, I learned that I'm well behind the curve with this. Completed in 1987, such is the interest in old London Bridge, the model has been the subject of TV shows shown across the world.

For me the model was new however and what a discovery. The bridge has always held a fascination for me, but the model brought it to life with a vividness that no picture could.

The model maker

The 13 foot long model was completed by keen model maker and Policeman David T. Aggett. In 1984, David had an operation when he was given a new heart by the famous surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub. To aid his recovery and with the help of mountains of Kit-Kat and other cardboard boxes, David started a small project to make a model of one of the buildings on the bridge. However, whilst he eventually resumed his position in the Metropolitan Police, rising to the rank of Detective Superintendent in the Fraud Squad, David was hooked on the bridge model. Gradually it took over increasing parts of his life and expanded intto a mammoth project to reproduce the whole medieval era bridge in great detail.

Incongruously placed booby on the bridge. This was apparently Agget's Hitchcock-style thumbprint. 

Originally, so the story goes, once completed, the model was offered to the Museum of London, but they apparently turned their nose up it. So St. Magnus Church stepped and offered it a home - and what better place: the archway under the church tower, through which you pass to enter the church was once the pedestrian entrance to the old bridge! (The new bridge stands about a hundred feet to the west of the old one). Some stone fragments of the old bridge also survive in the churchyard just beyond the arch.

Surviving pedestrian entrance to old bridge (Image: Historic UK)

John Rocque's 1746 map, shows how the church was almst part of the bridge.

Extract from John Rocque's 1746 map, showing how very connected the church was to the bridge. 

Till not long ago the model was on a somewhat rickety table and was unprotected from the prying hands of the many visitors who came to see it. Then, recently, it was given a new home on a fine custom-made base protected by a sturdy transparent cover. Before it was encased, it was professionally cleaned in an operation lasting a week and keen artist Father Warden repaired some of the ravages of time, including reinstating some of the missing medieval Airfix characters heads! 

Medieval London Bridge

Built between 1176 and 1209, the medieval bridge replaced a succession of timber bridges and lasted until 1831. The bridge was about 926 feet (282 metres) long, and had nineteen piers linked by nineteen arches and a wooden drawbridge. The width between the arches was around 30 feet, narrow enough to create rapids. This led to the dangerous activity of "shooting the bridge", whereby boats would attempt to pass beneath the bridge without capsizing. Any plucky boatman brave enough to try would also have to negotiate a drop of some six feet as its waters passed under the bridge from west to east. Navigation through the arches would no doubt have been much easier during the frost fairs of the seventeenth century.

Frost fair of 1683, (Image: Public domain via Wikipedia)

The length of the bridge is one of the things the model brings home. I'd never really thought about it, but, previously  I had no idea of the scale. The current bridge is 882 feet (269 m). appreciably shorter than the medieval one. 

The model also makes clear just how much was crammed on to the bridge, The number of houses on the bridge reached its maximum in the late fourteenth century, when there were 140. There was also a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket (for those taking a pilgrimage to Canterbury) and a gatehouse with a drawbridge which allowed tall ships through, but also probably had a defensive function.

The tower and drawbridge as shown in David Aggett's model.

In 1633 fire destroyed the houses on the northern part of the bridge. The gap was only partly filled by new houses, with the result that there was a firebreak that prevented the 1666 Great Fire of London spreading to the rest of the bridge and to Southwark. According to Wikipedia, by the end of the century, the usual plan was a shop on the ground floor, a hall and often a chamber on the first floor, a kitchen and usually a chamber and a waterhouse (for hauling up water in buckets) on the second floor, and chambers and garrets above. Approximately every other house shared in a 'cross building' above the roadway, linking the houses either side and extending from the first floor upwards." 

Further alterations resulted in a bridge of a rather different appearance by the mid-eighteenth century.

London Bridge. 1757, Samuel Scott (Image; Public domain via Wikipedia)

Between 1757 and 1761, to make way for increasing levels of traffic, all the buildings on the bridge were demolished and its two centre arches were replaced by a single wider span, the Great Arch. This final act weakened the rest of the structure and in the following decades constant expensive repairs were required. This, combined with congestion both on and under bridge resulted in public pressure for a modern replacement. 

Between 1824 and 1831 a new bridge was built about 100 feet to the west. The old bridge was unceremoniously demolished. The new bridge lasted for about 140 years at which point, following surveys that showed it was sinking by an inch every eight years (hence I suppose “London Bridge is falling down”), it was famously sold to a city in Arizona and replaced with the current structure by 1973. 

Before visiting, I had only the vaguest idea of the bridge and its history. My visit spurred my interest. It's a wonderful model, a lovely church and a fascinating bridge. Worth making a visit. The church opening hours are on the website. This is an Anglo-Catholic church and  Father Phillip covers the model during mass (times also on the website).

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Interestingly this video about London Bridge popped into my You Tube feed, at exactly the moment I opened your HOL post Hugh- Spooky. 

It gives you a little interesting background, including why the new bridge is not on the same location as the old one. Shame he does not mention that the brick of the medieval bridge now line the East and West reservoirs. 

Thanks, Justin. What a chirpy chappie.

I maybe should’ve mentioned the reason for the relocation of the bridge, but I perhaps mistakenly thought it was obvious.

The Youtuber missed key influences that drove the demolition of the first two bridges. As I said above the first one was wrecked by the mid-18th century changes which was the main reason, it was demolished. The second one was abandoned due to construction errors. It was gradually sinking at the south end, which is why it was replaced.

Actually, the relocation was not obvious to me, always wondered why it shifted as it did, but glad to learn that. The church and the model have been on my hit list of London Things for a long time. I will make an effort to go and see them.

And, yes, he was proper chirpy!

What would have been interesting to hear though was why the 6 foot drop on the other side of the bridge, and the link to the ice festivals- the structure of the bridge impeding the flow of the river so much that river rand slowly behind it- apparently, once the bridge was removed the ice festivals were no more.

According to Dorian Gerhold’s detailed book on the bridge, the drop was related to the way the bridge construction essentially acted like a dam.

With regard to the frost fairs, a key influence was the little ice age that the North Atlantic region experienced in the 17th century. Nonetheless, there may well have been a link between the bridge and the frost fairs. Apparently the bridge both impeded the flow of salt water upriver (which is harder to freeze), plus not only did the bridge slow the flow of the river, it also trapped ice between is starlings, slowing the flow even further. The end of Frost fair conditions, coincided, roughly, not only with the removal of the old bridge, but also with the end of the little ice age. Apparently the embanking of the river, which narrowed it and made the water flow faster also created conditions that were much less favourable to the river freezing over.

This article is about where bits of the old bridge can be seen:


Thanks, Jeremy, I had no idea that so much of the old bridge survived scattered around. The alcoves look like fun survivals. even though they were only part of the bridge for 70 years (from 1762), What many of us  fail to acknowledge is that in spite of the shortcomings of the bridge for modern use, it still lasted more than 600 years an innumerable fires. 

According to Gerhold, the houses weren't an accidental encroachment. They were actually an integral part of the initial design, probably drawing on precedents from France, where there were several inhabited bridges before 1176. The houses were key to both the finances of the bridge and of its physical design. The rents which made up a significant proportion of the bridge's income, were granted by King John in 1202,

"We will and grant, that the rents and profits of the several houses that the said Master of the Schools [Isembert] shall cause to be erected upon the bridge aforesaid, be for ever appropriated to repair, maintain and uphold the same." (Quoted in Gerhold)



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