Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Bridges of London Tour

This was a boat tour, a first for this blog but hopefully far from the last, and it was led by broadcaster and architectural historian Dan Cruickshank. Upon embarking at the Tower of London pier I was offered a glass a wine and then made my way to the top of the boat where a growing crowd of us waited for the boat to depart and our tour to begin.

I was not aware of Dan Cruickshank's programmes but quickly guessed he must be something of a celebrity as, during the pre-tour wait, a number of people introduced themselves to him and asked to have their pictures taken beside him. Obligingly and with good humour he did so. Looking now at the substantial list of programmes he has researched and presented for the BBC I see the 2012 broadcast that was the template for this evening's tour: The Bridges That Built London 

Dan Cruickshank explores the mysteries and secrets of the bridges that have made London what it is. He uncovers stories of bronze-age relics emerging from the Vauxhall shore, of why London Bridge was falling down, of midnight corpses splashing beneath Waterloo Bridge, and above all, of the sublime ambition of London's bridge builders themselves.

This was basically our tour too, except we were not watching it on the box but were taking it in a boat in the company of the presenter himself and could enjoy a glass of wine along the way. This was, in effect, a television made real tour.

It just remained for the captain to make some brief health and safety announcements, a somewhat familiar protocol (e.g. Victoria Park Memoryscape Tour), and we set off into the dusk.

That's when the light food was offered. It made a welcome return later in the cruise too and this made me wonder if this was in some way a 'bribe' to endear us to the event. Upon reflection however, that is the thinking of someone who has taken a few too many walking tours and was unaccustomed to river cruises. This most certainly was part of the package and it is wrong to try and separate it from the rest of the tour, just as it is a mistake to not include the pub at the end of the walking tour that often plays its role in the event. That said, we were in effect taking our tour on a floating bar with the staff bringing a steady flow of wine and tea up to us. This gave the whole affair a much more relaxed atmosphere than a walking tour where you have to make continuous effort. 

The commentary began with Tower Bridge and we were told about its construction: dates, architect, technology, rationale, style, cost, reception and consequences. This included a nice story about Queen Victoria being secretly opposed to it as she thought it might jeopardise the security of the Tower of London, still considered in the late 19th Century a refuge of last resort in the case of a republican uprising. We headed upstream and heard a similar type of description at each bridge and in the stretches between them also heard more general observations on things that could be seen from the boat such as how The Embankment narrowed the river and changed its character.  

Some of the bridges were architecturally interesting and we heard a good deal about the evolution of materials and methods used to construct them. The new London Bridge however is no charmer, as the forced labourers used as guards for last year's Jubilee Pageant would probably agree.

By the time we reached Blackfriars Railway Bridge dusk had truly given way to night and as there were no lights above deck Mr Cruickshank had to use a pocket lamp to read his notes. I have the impression he is somebody who communicates a lot with his hands and this created a choreography of light, a pool of illumination skipping between the bridges, his notes, circling in the air when he was thinking and stopping upon me, it seemed, when he was making a full stop in his sentences. The woman in the foreground acted as his assistant holding the pages when the wind whipped them up or fixing his lamp when it switched to red for no good reason. Mr Cruickshank, to his credit, took these things in his stride, acknowledging any mishaps, making light of them and moving on.

The night only got blacker still and finally there was not so much to see except the lights from buildings on the riverbank and bridges caught in moments of flash photography. Here is Westminster Bridge looming out of the night. This left me feeling that the tour would have worked far better if it were arranged as a weekend afternoon cruise when we could have clearly seen all the things that were being talked about. What's more, the boat's progress along the river and the spoken descriptions could have been better coordinated. The text that acted as his source material had been been written to be narrated for a documentary and not developed as a river tour. This meant that there was sometimes too much to say in some sections which were interrupted by the next bridge while in the fallow zone after Westminster Bridge there was not so much to say. A tour that is developed for a specific route and honed over time has the opportunity to deepen its relationship to the route, for the guide's timing to become precise and detailed observations particular to the route to be made. This cruise was however a one-off event and as such was more freewheeling and, it must be said, was largely taken in that spirit.  

After passing Vauxhall Bridge the boat turned around and made its way downstream back towards The Tower. We descended below to the warmth and light and Dan Cruickshank interspersed the homeward journey with some short literary readings such as Wordsworth's Upon Westminster Bridge. The final impression of the tour was rather mixed for me as it was on the one hand rough in its surface and on the other I was aware that this was an influential version of the capital's history that I was listening to being given live. This mismatch between the simplicity of the event with all its attendant niggles and the impact of the tour, a TV tour made real, was curious to observe and I wondered whether people were watching the actual event of whether they were using it as a springboard for a televisual imagination. This is a way to say I wonder if the same tour was given by someone the public knew nothing of whether they would perceive it in a similar way or not. I suspect that they would view it quite differently but then again, if it were given by someone unknown it would be a very different sort of event as the expectations would not be the same. In any case, Dan Cruickshank held together both the real and the TV tour, with charm and a depth of knowledge so I can see how this makes him most suitable for broadcasting.

Thames Festival who presented this cruise have a number of other tours and art events coming up this week and next including a series of walks along London's lost rivers by Tom Bolten who is interviewed about these on Talking Walking and several other tours around and about the river and indeed some walks along the river bank itself. It looks like a good program.

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