wood and clay will wash away

I make it to London Bridge just in time. Sunrise today is at 4.46, creeping earlier still. I was away last week so I haven’t been out for a few days and the change is noticeable. The sky is perfectly clear this morning and the backlight in the east is luminous.

I round the corner from the Monument, so I’m on the left-hand side of the bridge as you cross from north to south. I’m cooing to myself as I see the river and take in the view. My eye tells me to stop about a third of the way across. I’m looking down river at Tower Bridge in silhouette. The water has turned silvery-blue, reflecting the sky, and the deep shadows of the two towers reach out across the eddying currents. The tide is coming in so the river seems to be drifting upstream towards me, stretching my perspective, while a soothing motion of sweeps and swirls ripples across its surface.

Looking straight through, under Tower Bridge – with its stoplights fixed at red – I can see as far as Rotherhithe, hazy in the distance. The sun is rising somewhere behind the buildings of the City, to my left.

One or two people are already on their way to work, walking over from the Southwark side – no suits yet, though. Trucks and buses grind the traffic lanes behind me and I try to shut out the din, as I watched the light shift imperceptibly over the river. A gull floats impassively by. A cormorant takes off from an oily pontoon, clattering low across the water.

As the bell of St Magnus the Martyr strikes the hour of five, a thread of golden sun begins to be reflected by a window on one of the old warehouses on the south bank. Slowly it grows to a tight blaze. Something catches down Rotherhithe way and sends a pinpoint of light back to me. After another minute or so, another shaft of light begins to stream across the broken surface of the water, again to my right, reflecting this time on a glass panel somewhere down on the river-boat pier. Then I see it gilding the sharp edge of one of the tall Canada Square towers over at Canary Wharf. But I still can’t see the sun itself. As I stand here, sunlight is being bounced at me from all angles.

Of course, this is the site of the first bridge that was built across the Thames, by the Romans, when the river was much wider than it is today. The ugly concrete version I’m standing on is probably about the sixth or seventh incarnation. Wood and clay will wash away… My fair lady. And looking around, I can see examples of other re-builds, old and new. On the north shore stands an art deco office block, then a recent construct that looks to be made of sugar cubes of deep blue glass. Next comes graceful Old Billingsgate, once the fish market, built in the 1870s and topped with a couple of ostentatious weather vanes decorated with those thick-lipped fish you see in the far-flung corners of seafarers’ maps. On the south side, there are the old wharf buildings, now smartly converted, more glass squares then the bulbous snail of City Hall. At the southern end of the bridge the latest concept called The Shard is making its dizzying ascent into the skyline it shares with the ancient tower of Southwark Cathedral. All is progress. Nothing much is permanent, least of all you and me, and those souls who’ve been crossing over here for the last couple of thousand years.

It’s always worth remembering. Pull yourself up short. This is my brief moment. And this particular moment is worth savouring. On this beautiful bright summer’s morning, I lean over and watch the river as it slides by. I’m finding there’s something delicious in being up and about at this hour. Even the familiar is fresh and different. This is a parallel London, with its own exquisite light and shade. It’s like wandering through a foreign land.

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