diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Great British Roads - A3: London - Portsmouth
The first mile: London Bridge (north) - Elephant & Castle

Road begins: Monument
The A3 starts where London nearly finished - at the Monument. The Great Fire of London was kindled just around the corner in Pudding Lane, killing only six people but destroying four fifths of the City. The Monument was built by Sir Christoper Wren to commemorate the conflagration, and is exactly as far away from the bakery where the fire began as it is tall. At 202ft it remains (I believe) the world's tallest free-standing stone column and became one of London's first tourist attractions with its stunning panorama over the rebuilt city. The view from the upper platform now includes rather more office blocks and rooftop ventilation units than would have been the case in the 17th century, but in my experience it's still well worth making the 311 step ascent to the top.
To be truly accurate, the A3 really begins in front of the House of Fraser department store on King William Street, but somehow that's not quite so interesting.

The A3 spends only a few hundred metres north of the river before reaching the capital's oldest permanent river crossing - London Bridge. The current bridge is at least the tenth on the site, the original built by the Romans in AD80. Several timber bridges followed before construction of the first stone bridge was completed in 1209. The 200ft span was supported by 20 arches, and featured a drawbridge, traitors' heads on spikes, numerous houses and a big chapel in the middle. The bridge survived the Great Fire because it had only been partially rebuilt following an earlier fire and the flames couldn't jump the gap, and this medieval structure went on to provide more than 600 years of service. A granite replacement was opened by King William IV in 1831, only to be sold off in the 1960s to an American businessman who shipped it across the Atlantic to span Lake Havasu in Arizona. The latest London Bridge (opened 1971) with its six lane highway is more able to cope with modern traffic but definitely lacks the architectural charm of its predecessors. At least the view downstream towards Tower Bridge is still spectacular.

Southwark Cathedral guards the southern end of the bridge (although this is soon to be dominated by the 310 metre tall London Bridge Tower). Underneath the railway arches lurks Borough Market, famed foodie nirvana where you can buy squidgy cheese, fruit juice with bits in, organic scallops, wild boar meat, spicy chutneys and (allegedly) some produce which actually tastes nice. To the south stretches Borough High Street, an important bridgehead thoroughfare in medieval times when it was packed with all the bawdy revelry and lewdness that wasn't permitted north of the river. Only one of the old coaching inns now survives - The George. It may be cunningly hidden up an alley just off the High Street but all the tourists and real ale drinkers still seem to find it, and rightly so. Up a neighbouring alley, where Copyprints now does business, stood The Tabard Inn from whence Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims supposedly set off in 1386.
"Byfel that in that sesoun on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay
Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with ful devout courage,
At night was come into that hostelrie,
Wel nyne and twenty in a compainye.
A little further on, where the local library now stands, is the site of the infamous Marshalsea Prison (opened 1373). When Charles Dickens was 12 his father was imprisoned here as a convicted debtor, leaving the young boy to face six months working in a nearby bootblack factory. The experience traumatised impressionable Charles who later based much of Little Dorritt ("a child of the Marshalsea") in the local area. Borough High Street wends its way southwards, becoming less historic and more lacklustre as it goes. The A2 begins at a junction outside Borough station (we took that route yesterday) while the A3 heads on towards the now-less-pink Elephant & Castle. Thankfully my first mile concluded just beforehand, outside a huge white mansion that serves as the Crown Court for half of London. Not somewhere you'd want to end up, but thankfully I was free to walk away.
Mile ends: Inner London Crown Court, Borough High Street

Road continues: Elephant & Castle, Kennington Park Road, Clapham High Street, Battersea Rise, Wimbledon Common (west), Kingston bypass, Chessington, Cobham, Guildford, Hindhead, Petersfield, Waterlooville, Portsmouth.

A3 links
A3 route description (from uk-roads)
Old London Bridge Museum
Old maps of Southwark (including Borough High Street 1658)
London SE1 community website

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