SHIFTING SHORELINES #1: ST. MAGNUS-THE MARTYR  -  Wednesday July 29th, 2009

A. London Bridge (dating from 1973) B. Location of London Bridge prior to 1831 C. Monument. St. Magnus’ is in blue.

While in Tokyo, Douglas Adams once remarked to his guide that a particular temple had weathered remarkably well since its construction several centuries earlier. The guide replied that this was not at all the case, and that it had been burnt down twice in the last century alone. Its significance as a state monument therefore involved its complete reconstruction. Adams started to mediate that the Western obsession with the temporal continuation of materials is only an impediment to actually seeing the building. This perpetuation of a building’s soul, or spirit, irrespective of its physical form, he implies, is not common in occidental thinking. Oh, but Douglas, it is.

Take St. Magnus-the-Martyr, a church at the north end of London Bridge. First built in 276 – the discovery of a Roman wooden pylon near the site indicates that it was constructed outside the Roman river defences (designed to prevent flooding). That is, the church was either on, and probably sometimes in, the river. It was enlarged in 1234 (a satisfyingly sequential year) in stone, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Wren.

For several centuries it marked one end of London Bridge, (whose famous 20 arches supported numerous houses, fortifications and even a church) and marked the limit of naval traffic – the upper reach of London Pool. After Wren it actually sat on the bridge, its vestry on the fourth floor open to travellers (the type of elevated urban structure that would, much later, inform the design of the Barbican).

But throughout its history it was always St. Magnus-the-Martyr. The physical distinction of the buildings is evident – but the spirit remained. With sacred architecture we recognise the fact that the meaning of the place comes from powers unbounded by time or space. We are less convinced of the ontological value of offices, retail, even our own homes.

But there is an added complication with St. Magnus: the church was attached to the bridge, bordering the ancient path used by the invading legions (advancing onto their own epochal Heart of Darkness). Thus the genius loci of St. Magnus’ is a maritime river spirit. Now the Old London Bridge is gone, demolished. Even the 19th century replacement has been sold, dismantled, and reassembled in the Arizona desert. The new bridge is 50m from the church. The vestry hangs up in the air, strangely isolated. A child that has climbed up a countertop and is suddenly unsure how to get down. The bells, which were scrapped about the same time the bridge was moved, have been replaced, but are now silent.

A worker beating the lead roof had left the tower door open, and deafened by the organ did not hear me sneak up to the vestry and then take a picture of the bellroom.

The river bank, too, has moved, 200m from church – the distance across the Thames is today about half what it was in the C17th. What sort of effect has this had on the conception of the place, and can we even say that the church is today in the same place as it was in centuries past? Find out more in part 2, with a shocking (and controversial) conclusion in part 3.

Coming Soon… Part #2: New York, New York.

St. Magnus-the-Martyr, dwarfed by the modern office blocks, as seen from Monument. Arrow indicates present London Bridge, vestry located at about half of the tower’s height.

  1. Marc says:

    Are you sure about this? The building between St Magnus and the bridge (where the B arrow falls) is an Egyptian Revival building of the 1920s or '30s, with coats of arms of British dominions on its roadside facade, if memory serves. (The City of London Pevsner, which I don't have to hand, would clear this up. I tried searching for 'St Magnus House' but that appears to be the block obscuring the Monument) It definitely isn't post-1973.

    The classical building (where the A arrow falls) is one of the Livery Companies' halls (architect Sir Robert Smirke? Again Pevsner would tell) and has an entrance portico to the side clearly designed as a grand entrance from London Bridge. It also looks as if Rennie's Victorian bridge was on the same site as the new one from this pic. What's your source for the site of the bridge having moved? I sense this may have happened long before 1973, perhaps for the construction of the 19th-century bridge?

  2. Jack Self says:

    You're absolutely right Marc, in my excitement to write up my psychogeographical wanderings I confused the Old London Bridge, constructed in 1209 (under the rule of King John) with the Victorian bridge designed by Rennie that replaced it in 1825 (amazing to think that a single bridge occupied the site for 600 years).

    Rennie's bridge was built "180 feet west of the old Bridge and for a time Londoners could see both the old bridge and the new side-by-side." (via)

    So while the old bridge was indeed where the arrow indicates, the date should read 'pre-1831'. I will change the post.

  3. peter says:

    How difficult csn it be to post a comment? Is there a time out in operation or something, I got fed up after writing everything out four times.

  4. Jack Self says:

    there is a comment moderation system in place on posts over two weeks old – that's unusual about the comment not working. I'm sorry you couldn't get it work, try writing it elsewhere and pasting it in…