61. The Thames crossing at Putney Bridge
For the most part, all you get to see of the Thames while on an Underground train is its reincarnation as a cartographically-challenged blue line on a map above the head of the person sitting opposite. And even this wasn’t possible for a short period a few years ago, before wiser heads prevailed and all was soon again for the best in the best of all possible diagrammatically-realised worlds.
It’s even more exciting, therefore, when the actual Underground meets the actual Thames in the open air, which it does only twice, at Kew and here, by Putney Bridge station.
This is the Fulham railway bridge, whose splendour can be sampled either when you’re rattling over it or, and this is the real treat, ambling alongside it. For not only is this a rail crossing, it is also a pedestrian crossing, thereby allowing the spectator a close-up view of London’s two most agreeable forms of transport going about their business atop each other.
That’s not meant to sound voyeuristic, though frankly anybody loitering in a place like this with a camera isn’t exactly an innocent bystander. And yes, I did have to do quite a lot of loitering to get a shot that was free of people using the bridge for walking rather than ogling.
It was designed by a former assistant of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and it shows.
The bridge was built between 1887 and 1889 for the London and South Western Railway, and got sympathetically refurbished just over 100 years later. It’s still in pretty good condition, and bears the twin reassurances of intelligent craftmanship and tasteful embellishment.
By defying logic and allowing your brain to process information from an illogical point of view, i.e. suspended above water, bridges inevitably alter your mood. A bridge that doesn’t entertain a continual procession of traffic, with unending, uncompromising noise, leavens this process with beauty.
In a location like this particular Thames crossing, in the silences between the romantic roar of passing trains, notions percolate, fancies take hold and ideas take flight.
Like how the river commands a pace of life unlike anywhere else in London. Like how it has become inseparable from people’s internal imprint of the Underground.
And like how it’s fun to have carriages pass alongside you above eye level: a hedgehog’s view of a train, only safer.
That bridge brings back so many memories.
I used to walk over it twice daily, and no two days would the view or the feel of the trip be the same. There’s a very agreeably-shaped wall lamp at the Fulham end of the bridge, too. A colleague of mine (we worked up in Fulham) would take photos of the changing view downstream every day, and she’d post them online. Beautiful. I wonder what happened to them.
Often I would see a tall, angry, lumbering guy, my age, walking in the other direction to me. He’d bullied me a few times at school, but he was one of those who had been bullied and used his physical size to his advantage. I probably look a bit different as I did at school, but he recognised me. I know he did. He knew it was me. Each time I saw him, he’d shift his gaze and quicken his pace. We never spoke. I hope he’s a happier man now.
It was a strange time in my life; I’d started an affair with a boy (and nobody knew about it) and had fallen in love with him. I saw him every day, and crossing north over that bridge would make my heart sing at the thought of seeing his lovely eyes and him holding me, yet also weep at my duplicity, the fury I had with myself for being so awful as to have an affair and cheat upon another who loved me so dearly. The underground trains would roar past often as I would stand on that bridge, that damned rattling, bouncing bridge. The only time I had to myself was a walk from my home to the office, and I’d occasionally stand looking out downstream watching various rowers and launches motor underneath. The crash and the roar was my sign to stop wishing the world would stop turning, take a deep breath, and carry on my journey into the world of stress and deceit that I had created. Oddly it was our shared nerdiness and love of the Underground that had brought us together. I still love that boy, and I miss him terribly, each and every day. Perhaps one day, it’ll be alright, again.
What years were you using the bridge?