Good Friday

Since navigation lights were hung on Hammersmith Bridge three months ago by the Port of London Authority, they have displayed a red or amber “X”, both of which forbade passage under the bridge to all rowing craft. On Friday, 16 July, the lights were finally changed to a green arrow indicating free passage to all river users.

20 July 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a very good Friday.

This week saw two rare pieces of good news, one from Hammersmith and one from Henley, both of which will bring particular cheer to HTBS Types.

Eleven months ago, on 13 August 2020, Hammersmith and Fulham Council very suddenly declared Hammersmith Bridge to be in imminent danger of collapse. Vehicles had not been allowed on the 134-year-old structure since April 2019, but the new ruling meant that pedestrians and cyclists could not go over it, a major problem for those residing on the South side, but also that no boats could go under it, a major problem for the whole British rowing community, not just those based in West London. As a British Rowing statement said at the time:

The closure of the river at Hammersmith Bridge splits one of the busiest stretches of river in the country for rowing. The Tideway stretch of river encompasses 75 clubs serving over 9,000 members. The closure of the river at Hammersmith also puts the running of a number of the major national head races in jeopardy. These races attract over 10,000 competitors to the London area from across the country and beyond each year.

The clubs of Putney Embankment – cut off.
The Mortlake to Putney ‘Championship Course’ as it runs in normal times on an ebb tide. Graphic: fourshead.org

The cutting in half of one of the world’s most famous rowing stretches saw the clubs downstream of Hammersmith Bridge (London RC, Thames RC, Putney High School BC, King’s College School BC, HSBC RC, Dulwich College BC, Crabtree BC, Westminster School BC, Vesta RC, Imperial College BC, Barn Elms Rowing Centre and Fulham Reach BC) restricted to the two miles between Putney and Hammersmith bridges or to the river downstream of Putney towards Wandsworth – where the water is often unsuitable for rowing.

Late 2020 and all of 2021 so far saw the cancellation of most local Tideway regattas and heads and all the major Mortlake to Putney time trials – though COVID would have done for these even if there was no problem with Hammersmith Bridge. 

It is popularly supposed that the most famous victim of the bridge closure was the 2020 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race. However, I hold that its temporary move to Ely was solely COVID-related as holding the race on any part of the Tideway would have attracted unacceptable and unavoidable numbers of spectators. I doubt that the bridge closure alone would have driven the Boat Race off the Thames and that, without the pandemic, a Hammersmith to Mortlake or Kew contest would have taken place.

The Fours Head pictured in 2019. It currently looks as if the Mortlake to Putney course could see the Scullers Head take place on 18 September, the Pairs Head on 2 October and the Fours Head on 13 November.

On 15 July, Hammersmith and Fulham Council announced that, after 11 months, the bridge would reopen on 17 July for cyclists and pedestrians to cross and for boats to go under. The PLA, seemingly never consulted about the closure decision, turned their Hammersmith Bridge navigation lights green early on Friday, the 16th.

A Thames RC crew goes under Hammersmith Bridge on 16 July.

Last month, the government announced it would pay no more than a third of the cost of fully repairing Hammersmith Bridge, which is expected to exceed £100m. The Department of Transport said itself, Transport for London and Hammersmith and Fulham Council must each agree to cover “a share” of the bill.

The reopening followed a report that said that checks on the bridge’s four pedestals and the supporting chains and the introduction of a temperature control system, all with a period of monitoring, had provided the necessary reassurance:

The risk of further cracking is now known to be very low, and any that may occur are very unlikely to prompt rapid crack growth due to the now demonstrably stable condition of the bridge structure…. The application of a permanent solution remains a priority. Without a funded plan for repair, the limited current use must cease eventually… It is not acceptable in managing safety risk to rely upon interim measures indefinitely.

Of course, this decision did not arrive fast enough for many keyboard warriors, some eager to make party political points, many apparently with engineering degrees, all seemingly surprised that Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Richmond Council, the Greater London Authority, the London Mayor, Transport for London and Central Government cannot all agree on who should cover the cost of the project.

Evidence that some repair work has already started?
HTBS contributor Daniel Walker tests Hammersmith Bridge on its reopening.
The intern from Hammersmith and Fulham Council who wrote this sign did not read Wikipedia carefully enough. William Tierney Clark designed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest and the first Hammersmith Bridge, not the current second one. Eyebar suspension bridges such as Hammersmith are (thankfully) rare but are not unique – Clifton Suspension Bridge is one.
One informed estimate is that over £3 million was spent in eleven months having two crane barges “standing by” in case of a bridge collapse. Further, will Thames Clippers, who were about to run a passenger ferry service, be paid compensation? A ferry may, however, still be needed in the future.
The Women’s Boat Race of 2016. COVID permitting, it should be back P to M in 2022.
The Hammersmith Bridge of 1827 pictured on a pre-health and safety Boat Race Day in the 1870s. When the span was no longer found to be strong enough, it was demolished, and the current bridge was put in its place. These days, we are more squeamish about knocking down old structures and starting again.

The second happy event of Friday, 16 July, was an email from Henley Royal Regatta to members of the Stewards’ Enclosure stating that they and their guests would have their usual access to the regatta this year. Earlier, there had been thoughts that even members may not be able to attend all five days and that places would have to be allocated by ballot.

Good news from HRR.

On Friday, the 16th, I visited Henley-on-Thames for the first time in over 18 months. As the pictures that I took that day show, Henley Royal Regatta 2021 will have many new and unusual aspects.

This view from Henley Bridge shows the regatta site under construction. The usual boat tent area is completely open, and boating will be from the town side. I am guessing that this open space will allow, if necessary, for a complex queuing system for entrance into the Stewards’ Enclosure. 
The same view from Henley Bridge in 2019. 
The Bridge Bar and (I think) the Committee Lawn.
The bridge end of the Stewards’ Enclosure. This picture shows the only land-based grandstand that will be in place.
The far end of Stewards’ includes the area usually taken by the public Regatta Enclosure – which will not be running this year.
Fortunately, whatever differences Henley 2021 will have on land, on the water it should be “business as usual”.

2 comments

  1. It’s well known, isn’t it, that the Budapest bridge designer also designed Marlow bridge?

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