September is a lovely month in London. Visits wander around in the leafy city tinged with the gold of early autumn. There are several options for crossing between the north and south banks and, standing on one bridge, one can see many others along the curve the river.
Tourists from abroad often believe Tower Bridge to be London Bridge, and indeed, several of the sources they use at home for information about London show a picture of Tower Bridge, labeled London Bridge. Visitors are then disappointed when they see the real London Bridge, a flat, low, featureless modern bridge.
The London Bridge that Shakespeare knew was very different. It was an important bridge – the only way to get from London to the other side of the river, unless you went by ferry, which was dangerous, particularly if your ferryman was so foolish as to try to pass under it, which was known as shooting the bridge. It was said that London Bridge was made for wise to pass over and fools to pass under. That was because the river had been narrowed at the site of the bridge so the pressure speeded the water up and many who tried to cross near the bridge or to pass under it were drowned.
Being the only bridge its traffic was enormous – vital for the movement of both goods and people. When Shakespeare arrived in London it was already four hundred years old and, because just about every Londoner and visitor to London had to cross it it had developed into a little city, with hundreds of shops in several buildings of all kinds, which had sprung up over the centuries. Because so many merchants wanted to enjoy the advantages of so many people using the bridge the buildings grew higher and higher, some reaching six stories, and many projected up to sixty-five feet over the river. The struts and buttresses that supported them groaned, and swayed dangerously.
One of Shakespeare’s first sights when he crossed the bridge for the first time would have been the heads of traitors displayed on poles at the Southwark end, with birds pecking at them. He would not have experienced the sense of horror that we would if we were to see that today, as the practice was as normal to Elizabethans as the sight of hamburger vendors is to us in the same place today.
The theatres on the south bank were filled to capacity every afternoon, which meant that much of the population of London made two crossings a day, during which they were able to purchase anything they wanted. London, and was Europe’s top shopping city then, as it is today, and London Bridge was the main shopping street.