diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 25, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
Holborn Viaduct


Most people think that central London is fairly flat, and for the most part it is, but here and there are some surprisingly steep hills. Take the short journey from Newgate prison (now the Old Bailey) to Holborn Circus, for example. There's a fairly steep descent down Snow Hill1 into the Fleet valley, a gradient which was considerably greater before the river was covered over, and then a similarly steep ascent up Holborn2 Hill on the other side. Medieval tradesmen taking goods to market in the City found this route particularly difficult, and occasionally treacherous. One particular lane leading down to the river from the east is still called Turnagain Lane, because if you brought your horse and cart this way you had no alternative but to back up and return the way you came. A proper stone bridge was built here in the Middle Ages and this became the northern limit of the navigable part of the Fleet. However, even with Holborn Bridge in place, the crossing was still not straight-forward.

The Victorians, as ever, had an answer. In the 1860s they built a magnificent curved viaduct across the valley, wiping away the slums beneath at the same time. Holborn Viaduct was the engineering miracle of its day, taking a full six years (and two million pounds) to build. Most people today think it's just a short bridge crossing Farringdon Road, but it actually stretches much further and is nearly half a kilometre long. The structure is a three-span cast-iron girder bridge, held up on granite piers, with four grand stairwells permitting descent to the roadway below. In the northwestern stairwell an engraving depicting the construction of the viaduct has been enlarged to enormous size as a modern tiled mosaic. Four classical statues mark the four corners of the main span - one each to represent Commerce, Agriculture, Fine Arts and Science3 - and a pair of bronze winged lions guard each end. Unfortunately it appears that the viaduct no longer meets certain modern health and safety regulations. New green barriers are being erected beneath the central span to protect its pillars from out-of-control lorries, and some especially ugly concrete blocks have been dumped along the edges of the main bridge, presumably to stop bendy buses accidentally smashing through the decorative ironwork and crashing onto the Farringdon Road below.
1 In the early eighteenth century a group of aristocratic ruffians called Mohocks took perverse pleasure in rolling old ladies down Snow Hill inside empty beer barrels. "As they neared the foot of the hill, they heard a groaning and stifled crying for help; and, sure enough, they found a buxom woman, the wife of a respectable citizen, tightly wedged into the cask, and much shaken and bruised by her rapid transit down the hill."
2 Holborn (pronounced with a silent L) was recorded as Holeburne in the Domesday Book, and means the stream (burne) in the hollow (hole).
3 The world's first public electricity generating station was opened alongside Holborn Viaduct in 1882 as part of an experiment to illuminate the lamps across the bridge.
21 photos of old Holborn Viaduct
Holborn Viaduct today
Londonist loves Holborn


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