Standing by the Thames, enjoying one of London‘s prettiest views, I can’t help humming the tune from that children’s classic, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. As the characters find their path blocked by a river, they all sing: ‘We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it.’
And that, I am afraid, is the real-life situation here at Hammersmith. The grand old green and gold suspension bridge, familiar to millions of viewers of the annual Boat Race, is not merely closed off to traffic.
It is closed to everyone and everything, following a major panic three weeks ago when the bridge’s owner, the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, was suddenly informed that it might collapse at any minute.
Hammersmith bridge is closed to everyone and everything, following a major panic three weeks ago when the bridge’s owner, the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, was suddenly informed that it might collapse at any minute
Pictured: Children of local residents display their banners in protest
All traffic had been banned a year earlier. Now, overnight, this 133-year-old link between Barnes, on the south side, and Hammersmith, to the north, was sealed off to pedestrians, cyclists — even dogs.
And because it could now fall into the Thames without warning, the authorities have also decreed that nothing shall pass underneath either — not even a kayak.
As a result, all river traffic is banned — indefinitely. It means that for the first time since the reign of George III, when the river last iced up in the Great Freeze of 1814, the Thames is now shut.
Nothing west of here can head for the open sea unless it is small enough for a complex detour through the Middlesex canal system. Nothing can come in from the North Sea and head upriver, by order of the Port of London Authority. If Oxford and Cambridge held the Boat Race today, they would be arrested.
And tens of thousands of people for whom the bridge is a vital route to school, hospital or work must now make a five-mile detour. Those attempting it by car or bus face delays of up to an hour and a half each way.
Walkers and cyclists face a choice of unlit paths and a road that floods at high tide or a pavement next to a six-lane highway. There is no indication of when life may get back to normal. That is because three separate local authorities and the Government have been unable to agree on who is to blame, who is in charge and who should foot the bill.
Overnight, this 133-year-old link between Barnes, on the south side, and Hammersmith, to the north, was sealed off to pedestrians, cyclists — even dogs
Yet it is part of a much greater problem. To follow the Thames through London is to witness a metropolis gradually being sawn in half. For, one by one, London’s bridges seem to be falling apart. At the same time, the Mayor of London’s solution is not to free up the city’s blocked arteries but to clog them with more cycle lanes and ‘safe’ pavements.
Most of the city’s office space is still unoccupied. For the first time in history, airports in Frankfurt and Paris carry more passengers than the once-mighty Heathrow. Britain is being bypassed.
And our rivals are thrilled. This week, the New York Times — which loves any tale of UK hubris and decline — has run a piece painting Hammersmith as emblematic of terminal decay in Brexit Britain.
It’s an easy case to make. Drive east along the Thames from Hammersmith and you will soon come to Wandsworth Bridge, now reduced from four lanes to two. Four miles further on, Vauxhall Bridge has just been sealed off to everything except foot traffic for ’emergency repairs’. It also marks the boundary of London’s Congestion Charge zone.
In his latest salvo against the motorist, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has just increased the charge to £15 and extended it to evenings and weekends. At a stroke, millions of casual visitors now have a good reason not to bother with Central London at all.
Keep going and you will pass Waterloo Bridge — Mayor Khan wants to make it a pedestrian zone — and then London Bridge. Sorry, no cars here either. It is shut for ‘essential works’.
Drive east along the Thames from Hammersmith and you will soon come to Wandsworth Bridge, now reduced from four lanes to two. Four miles further on, Vauxhall Bridge has just been sealed off to everything except foot traffic for ’emergency repairs’
Even dear old Tower Bridge has not escaped the bridge plague. The other day, it got stuck in the upright position for over an hour, causing gridlock.
This is not merely a London problem. Nothing is going to improve in the rest of country if the capital — with its £26 billion annual surplus — grinds to a halt.
And nothing symbolises the malaise at every level of government — from town hall to Cabinet table — than the shambles here at Hammersmith.
Hence I am standing at the southern end of the bridge in an early evening downpour as a crowd cheers an impassioned William Blackshaw. ‘I am angry,’ he says. ‘We need more rallies like this — more rallies until someone on high makes our voices heard!’
William is 11. He is still in his new school blazer fresh from starting at his new state school on the other side of the river. Week one of big school should be an exciting moment. Instead, it has been a grim experience.
‘He was so pleased to be going. But instead of a 700-metre walk or scoot to school, it’s an hour extra each way by bus,’ says his father, property manager Tim Blackshaw, 44. I hear numerous tales of people left waiting for an extra hour on top as one emergency bus after another turns up full.
Although the bridge belongs to Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council on the north side, most of the 16,000 pedestrians and 22,000 drivers who once crossed it each day would come via the Liberal Democrat-run Borough of Richmond to the south.
The councils both argue, not unreasonably, that since it is a vital piece of London infrastructure, it should be adopted by the (Labour) Mayor and his Transport for London team. However, TfL, in turn, say they can do nothing until the (Tory) Government writes out a very large cheque.
All the residents want is some sort of temporary crossing. But TfL say they can’t consider this until the Government promises them cash for the whole project.
In the meantime, lives are thrown into chaos. I hear miserable tales of pensioners who can no longer visit their surgery across the bridge, of local businesses on the cusp of bankruptcy. The nearest pedestrian route is a mile and a half away, via the rail crossing at Barnes Bridge. On one side, the stairs are right next to a very narrow, very busy A-road. On the other is an unlit muddy path through woods.
I arrive one breakfast time and find it heaving with people lugging bikes or children (or both).
The locals have now given up with the councils and are shouting at the Government. Certainly, the costs involved are way beyond any local authority. The Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, Greg Hands, has compiled a dossier on the bewildering sums.
Between 2015 and 2019, TfL spent £5.3 million on ‘monitoring’ the structure. By 2016, a repair plan budgeted at £27 million had been agreed but TfL never quite got round to starting it. Last year, a few days after the Boat Race, engineers suddenly noticed that things were much worse and so the bridge was closed overnight to all traffic. By then, the repair bill was put at £40 million. Now, it is £140 million.
Mr Hands has submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out why. Hilariously, that has just been rejected on grounds of ‘national security’. Hammersmith Bridge has, indeed, been the target of three failed IRA bomb attacks — in 1939, 1996 and 2000 — but can’t we be told why the repair bill has rocketed by 400 per cent?
All sorts have turned up at this demo in Barnes, from schoolchildren holding ‘London’s Bridges Are Falling Down’ banners to a former Buckingham Palace aide, a former Coalition transport minister (Baroness Kramer of the Lib Dems) and a retired engineer with a plan for a £5 million temporary road bridge.
A popular refrain is: ‘Send in the Army.’ After all, the Royal Engineers managed to put up pontoon bridges over the Rhine — under enemy fire — in a matter of hours 75 years ago.
Sarah Olney, the local MP on the south side, tells me that she has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps without reply.
The leaders of Hammersmith and Richmond councils have just written jointly to the Prime Minister. ‘What a terrible metaphor it would be if we allowed this achievement from a high point in British history to simply crumble away,’ they say, adding that the bridge needs a minimum of £46 million just to make it safe for pedestrians. No reply has been received.
The councils are now exploring an emergency ferry service thanks to a local businessman who has lent his wharf for free and a team of marine experts who handled the boat scenes for the last Bond movie (that could make for a fun school run).
TfL says it wants ‘an urgent solution’ but is pleading poverty. ‘The ownership of London’s bridges varies, and there is no coherent national strategy for how to fund the maintenance of such critical infrastructure,’ says a spokesperson. ‘Hammersmith Bridge is a strategically significant river crossing, whose much-needed repair is heavily reliant on Government funding.’
At the very moment the demo is taking place on the bridge, I learn from Department for Transport insiders that Grant Shapps has summoned his officials for an emergency meeting. TfL and Hammersmith council have since been summoned and told that this is now a national matter. Expect further details in days.
‘London is stuck,’ says Shaun Bailey, the Tory nominee for next year’s mayoral election. ‘If businesses and residents aren’t being hit by Sadiq Khan’s congestion charge hike, they’re being hit by traffic jams and closed bridges.
‘Residents and businesses have a right to safe, reliable roads. If the Mayor won’t deliver them, then the Government unfortunately needs to step in.’
Back in the 19th century, Hammersmith Bridge was seen as a masterpiece. It was the model for one of the jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the ‘Chain Bridge’ across the Danube uniting the twin cities of Buda and Pest into the single metropolis we still see today.
Sadly, our capital seems to be going the other way. How long before the residents of Lon- find themselves completely cut off from -Don?