“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Southwark Spike

At the southern end of London Bridge, in the shadow of the spike-shaped building “The Shard”, is another spike shaped structure. This structure is a 16m tall spike made from light grey Portland stone. This leaning spike tapers from its base to a point, and it apparently lies at an odd 19.5° angle. This structure is known locally as the Southwark Spike or more correctly as the Southwark Gateway Needle. The Needle bears no inscription or plaque to explain its purpose or why it was built where it is.

The common explanation on the Internet seems to be that the Needle is a monument that relates to an old practice of displaying heads on spikes. Today’s London Bridge was built in 1974 and is not the original London Bridge. It seems that there have been various crossings of the River Thames at Southwark since Roman times. In 1209 a medieval bridge was completed at Southwark and this may have been the first to be formally known as “London Bridge”. This medieval bridge was 8m wide and around 240m to 270m long.  By 1358 it had become home to around 138 shops making it just as much a part of the city as any other street. The other key feature of the bridge was that it had defensive gatehouses at each end, and these gatehouses were regularly decorated with the tarred and spiked heads of executed criminals. William Wallace (of "Brave Heart" fame) is regularly cited as being one of the first people to have their head displayed on a spike at the bridge. The idea of displaying heads was that people crossing the bridge would be deterred from committing crimes by the clear and obvious indication of the punishment that may befall them!

Based on this history of impaling heads at the entrance to London Bridge, it is understandable why the collective wisdom of the Internet seems to be that the Southwark Gateway Needle was built as a monument to this practice. It seems however that the truth behind the Needle is somewhat less exciting. In the May 2014 issue of Fortean Times, David Hambling’s “Forum” article explains the intention of the architect who built the Needle in 1999. The idea is that if you follow the trajectory of the Needle as it passes through the ground, it points to the termination point of the old (medieval) London Bridge.

The medieval London Bridge was replaced in 1831 by a new London Bridge that was built a few metres upstream (at the site of today’s London Bridge) by John Rennie. By 1896 this new bridge was found to be insufficient for the volume of traffic that was passing over it. The bridge also appeared to be slowly sinking by 2.5cm every eight years, and by 1924 it was found that the east side of the bridge had sunk some 9cm lower than the west side of the bridge! As such it was decided that the bridge needed to be replaced and in 1967 the bridge was put up for sale. The bridge was bought on the 18th April 1968 by the American entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch, who paid just over £1M for it. McCulloch had the bridge dismantled and shipped it back to the USA where he had it rebuilt at Lake Havasu City in Arizona on the Lonn Colorado River. The rebuilt bridge was opened for use in October 1971. The sale of this bridge lead to another myth, with the story being that McCulloch bought London Bridge thinking he was buying the much more impressive Tower Bridge! There seems to be no evidence to support this claim however, and it is a bit of stretch to believe that a wealthy entrepreneur would mix the two bridges up!

So it just goes to show not to believe everything you read on the Internet! Although having said that perhaps I should try to start a myth that The Shard was built as a monument to severed heads of London Bridge!

"The Shard". The Southwark Gateway Needle can just be seen to the right hand side of the square building.

The Southwark Gateway Needle.

From the other side.

  David Hambling’s “Forum” article in the May 2014 issue of Fortean Times.

Pictures: London (August 2016).

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