Southwark Needle: The Spike on London Bridge
Have you ever looked up and noticed this alarmingly pointed spike on London Bridge?
Conceived as part of plans for a new public space and welcome gateway to Southwark, this slanted 16 metre long point is made of 25 differently-shaped blocks of Portland stone.
You may, like many others, walk straight past this plain monument by London Bridge Station and dismiss it as a contemporary sculpture. After all, without a plaque it’s not easy to find its raison d’etre.
To understand this spike we need to know a bit about the former London Bridge, the current London Bridge is the third major bridge on this site(-ish). If we skip back to the first* one; the Old Medieval Bridge (1209-1830) puts this one to shame.
*Yes, there were older London Bridges and probably a bridge here dating back to Roman times, but let’s simplify it a bit. If you fancy a bit more history of Old London Bridge, here’s a post for you!
Here’s a section of Claes Von Visscher’s Panorama of London from 1616. A drawing that shows Old London Bridge in all its glory. But I want you to focus on the bottom right hand corner of the picture.
That’s the traditional City of London welcome of heads on spikes. Traitors, criminals and ne’er do wells.
Traditionally then, the spike has been interpreted as a throwback to those heads on pikes, a reminder of this grisly part of London.
Today the guardians of London Bridge are the comparatively friendly silver dragons;
But nothing is ever that simple in London…
(True. But less fun.)
In an act that burst everyone’s bubble, The Londonist reported that writer David Hambling asked the Eric Parry Architects exactly what was behind their inspiration for the Spike on London Bridge.
Turns out that the Southwark Gateway Needle (its official name) is just a pointer.
According to architect José de Paiva, (in Hambling’s Fortean Times article published May 2014) it’s point indicated a specific spot; “tilted at 19.5 degrees … Follow the trajectory of the needle downwards and it points to the riverside opposite the City church St Magus the Martyr. This is where the medieval London Bridge crossed the river.”
So that’s sorted then, right? Well, when I first looked at the spike, I really didn’t see how it pointed to North of the river.
Even from another angle, I think it bears left, despite St Magnus the Martyr (its supposed target) being on the right hand side of the current London Bridge…
But (as kindly pointed out by Mark Brady on Twitter) it’s actually about following the line of the base of the sculpture…
So that all seems legit. But it still begs the question, why choose a very pointy spike in a similar position where spikes held heads? Coincidence perhaps? Or simply wishful gruesome thinking by nerdy Londoners?
What do you think?
Discover more of Southwark’s (Saucy) Secrets on my walking tour. Book onto a walk or browse available dates via eventbrite below.