A bridge too far Posted on May 20, 2015

I admit I had never noticed the church opposite Waterloo Station before – nor its garden. St John the Evangelist is, appropriately enough, one of the four ‘Waterloo’ churches built with a million pound grant from parliament after the battle we are celebrating in June. It apparently looked out of date in the 1820s when Gothic was the new approved ecclesiastical style; people thought its splendid Grecian portico, however dignified, was old hat.

Its generous burial ground is now a model urban public garden, admirably planted, well maintained and with lots of green space for games and picnics. The very opposite, in fact, to the proposed Garden Bridge which was the reason for my visit. I was asked to speak at a public meeting against the project from the gardener’s point of view. The church was packed with objectors, invited by the newly-coined TCOS (or Thames Central Open Spaces). Most of the objections centred on the cost of building and running this odd hybrid, and whether ‘public’ money should be spent on it. The cycling lobby is furious that you can’t bike over it; the disabled that it won’t (or rather wouldn’t) be wheelchair-friendly, and everybody that it would effectively be another commercial space for holding events, closable at will, and not a proper public bridge at all.

I made the point that it is a crazy place to put a garden. Artist’s mock-ups show it as a sort of park with full-sized trees. What tree would grow properly in what is essentially a long thin planter exposed to every wind that blows? The essence of a garden is shelter, seclusion, and space to linger. The plans show the bridge would have none of these. At busy times it could be like the Chelsea Flower Show; necks craning to see any plants at all.

But the greatest objection of all, overriding all other considerations, is the casual way that Boris, his friend Joanna and their star designer, Thos Heatherwick, would override the history that has created London’s greatest spectacle; the grey tideway of the Thames hurrying, dawdling, rising and falling between its gritty beaches, its monumental banks and its serious, grownup bridges. They would stick their folly in the finest view of all with, as The Times wrote, ‘all the elegance of a Saudi prince’s gilded loo’ – and just as much relevance.

There is a judicial review of Boris’s unorthodox procedures scheduled for June. Money is needed to pay for it. Please visit the TCOS website and make a contribution.

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