I’ve been thinking about Istanbul lately – it is one place that has been a constant in decades of travel. I first went there over 35 years ago and must have revisited the city at least eight, maybe ten, times since. When I think of Istanbul, I immediately think of Galata Bridge, as somehow this more than anywhere represents all that is great and cosmopolitan about the city. More than a mere link between the two sides of the Golden Horn – Eminönö and Kariköy – the bridge is a place for fishing and socialising, for eating and drinking; a place for lovers’ trysts, for poets to watch the sunset, for tourists to plan their next day in this great city at the very edge of Europe.While other bridges are merely functional – a dull concrete conduit for traffic over water like this one in Suffolk, or a human footbridge as sumptuous and organic as this one in Meghalaya, India, Galata Bridge is much more. Galata Bridge may not be beautiful of its own accord but it provides a platform from which to enjoy the iconic Istanbul skyline – the Venetian Galata Tower in one direction, the sky-piercing minarets of Sultanahmet’s mosques in the other. More than a mere bridge, it is a location in its own right that, in the Istanbullu psyche, has long been elevated above the role of merely conveying traffic .
Lying in bed this morning with the curtains still drawn it was obvious enough that it was raining outside, the thrum of workday traffic softened to a watery swash. Soon the hum became augmented by the unmistakeable sound of running water on the street – the drains temporarily overloaded such that a little stream was flowing downhill along the kerbside for a brief minute or two. This soothing sound was soon interupted by the piercing screams of a group of girls on their way to school – ‘Aaargh! Oh my Gaaaad’ – more an exclamation on the shock of suddenly getting wet than any profession of faith. Extreme weather like this tends to provoke a reaction but we are lucky – this is about as extreme as it gets in dry, temperate East Anglia. This year, though, it seems hard to believe that this is the driest corner of the country.
We had been warned: last night kindly TV weathermen had promised a month’s rain in a single day. This, on already saturated soils in many parts of the UK, did not bode well but at least here in Norfolk there would not be any major problems other than temporarily hazardous roads. It is all a matter of proportion, of course. To find really wet weather one has to venture much further east, to Meghalaya state in northeast India where the Cherrapunjee district holds the claim to be the wettest place in the world (although its soggy crown is challenged by neighbouring Maysynram, which likes to assert that it is just that little bit damper). Either way, it is wet: in excess of 12,000 mm per annum, and nearly 25,000 mm back in 1974, which is as much as some of us see in half a lifetime. I spent a happy week in this region a few years ago (admittedly in the dry season). You can read an article I wrote for Geographical magazine about the wonderful living root bridges of the Cherrapunjee region here.
Really wet days like this often put me in mind of places I am especially fond of – the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, monsoon India, Meghalaya. I remember washed-out camping holidays with long hours spent peering out of tents looking for a break in the clouds; taking shelter from the monsoon to drink sweet chai in an Indian teashop while the street outside turns into a muddy culvert; the sour smell of city pavements after heavy rain. I am also reminded of my favourite Beatles track, which features Ringo’s finest drumming, superb McCartney bass and a psychedelic backwards-vocals coda for good measure: Rain.
Early April in Norwich. It’s cool but the sky is blue and daffodils are glistening in Wordsworthian tribute to the bright spring sunshine. What better then than a morning stroll through the city along the banks of the River Wensum?
Like many cities – even London – these days, Norwich has largely turned its back on the river that runs through its centre. Once essential for transport and industry, the River Wensum that meanders through the city now seems to have little use other than as a backdrop for attractive new riverside apartments. Look a little closer though and you will still find plenty of reminders of Norwich’s medieval past along its course.
Hard to imagine now, but Norwich once held second city status in England and the banks of the River Wensum that dissect the city are still littered with traces of that period – medieval churches, priories, old bridges and defensive walls – as well as reminders of the city’s half-hearted dabble with Victorian industrialisation.
We begin our walk on St Benedict’s Street at St Lawrence’s Church. From the alley at the side of the church’s western gable you can see a little stone plaque set in the flint that depicts St Lawrence strapped to a grid iron, the means of his subsequent martyrdom. Understandably, he doesn’t look too happy about this but is blissfully unaware (well, perhaps not blissfully) that he will go on to become one of the earliest Christian martyr saints; indeed, the patron saint of comedians and chefs no less (and butchers and librarians too, apparently).
Descending the steps to cross Westlegate we pass the swish apartment block that in a previous incarnation used to be the Anchor Brewery. An enormous brick chimney once scraped the sky here – I still have a black and white photograph of it somewhere. As recently as thirty years ago Norwich used to be redolent of malt and hops (and chocolate too, from Rowntree’s, now Chapefield Shopping Centre) but its source did not originate from here as the Bullards brewery closed back in the 1960s.
We cross Coslany Bridge over the Wensum and follow the pedestrian access along the river’s north bank. Across the water stands the disused warehouse where the entire text of Thomas Moore’s Utopia is scrawled in white paint across the brickwork as if it were the work of a hyperactive 16th-century graffitti artist with a taste for political philosophy.
Crossing Duke Street by means of Dukes Palace Bridge, a brief detour via Colegate is necessary in order to reach Blackfriars Bridge by the Norwich School of Art before we arrive at Fye Bridge and Fishergate. Whitefriars Bridge comes next and the eponymous friary once stood on the site of the large edifice that looms before us: the Jarrolds Printing Works, built n 1834 and formerly a mill owned by the Norwich Yarn Company – a tall stately bulding with brickwork elegantly draped with Virginia Creeper and wisteria. Looking back, the clocktower on Norwich City Hall, which to my mind resembles a cut-price Marrakech minaret, rises into view beyond the weeping willows, newly in leaf, that sway dreamily over the torpid water beneath.
Beyond the printing works, a renga – a word map created by means of an ancient Japanese tradition of shared writing – strings a snake of words and phrases along green hoardings beside the river. A Renga for St James was created here on site in 2009 and utilises the local Norwich vernacular and reference points. Someone – a well-educated graffitist, who clearly understands the renga ethos – has scrawled ‘Perfidious’ above the word ‘Albion’, which in this instance refers to one of the few remaining wherries that used to ply East Anglia’s rivers.
Continuing east the new bridge soon comes into sight. Peter’s Bridge, named after a former Jarrold’s chairman, has only been open a few months and, surprisingly, not a lot of people seem to know about it. Most of the Wensum’s bridges are so ancient that they are firmly embedded in the city’s psyche but there have been three new footbridges so far this millennium: this one, the 2009 Lady Julian Bridge close to the railway station, and the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge, opened by the Yugoslav ambassador in 2001, near Carrow Bridge (ironic, then, that NATO bombed and destroyed the far more substantial and economically important bridges of Norwich’s twinned Serbian city just two years earlier).
Walking across this graceful, J (for Jarrold’s)-shaped footbridge, our riverside walk continues past Cow Tower towards Pull’s Ferry but before reaching this we pass what looks like a sluice leading into the river. This is, in fact, a rare 18th-century example of a swan pit, a tidal pool in which wild cygnets were kept and fattened for the table after having their wings clipped and beaks marked by their owners.
At Bishops Bridge, we leave the river behind to head for Cathedral Close and Tombland. A place called ‘Tombland’ next to a great church might reasonably be expected to be a place of the dead. But no, Tombland is Old English for ’empty land’ and this was the site of Norwich’s Anglo-Saxon market before the Normans came and shifted it to its present position next to St Peter Mancroft Church. Norwich Market has been operating there for over 900 years now and is still going strong, six days a week. Mind you, it did have a bit of an overhaul a few years back.
A little south of Ipswich, the vast concrete span of the Orwell Bridge stretches across the eponymous river like a conveyor belt to Hades. Well not Hades exactly, but the Port of Felixstowe. A constant rattling procession of lorries shunt to and fro the port, their drivers barely aware of the river they are crossing or the county town they are skirting by. The ciphers that identify their payloads have become household names — Maersk, China Shipping, Cosco – those magic metal boxes that contain the necessities of 21st-century life. Well-travelled, and more often than not coming from the Far East, the containers are the camels of the latter day Silk Road: a trade route, which, as any historian will tell you, was about a lot more than just silk.
The bridge might appear to be no place for pedestrians, but they are tolerated, and walkers intent on completing the Stour & Orwell Walk between Languard Point and Cattawade, and wishing to avoid the extra six or so miles of the alternative ‘Ipswich Loop’, are obliged to cross it on using the walkway on its southern side. The approach on foot from Orwell Country Park is intimidating – the noise, speed and volume of traffic all contributing to the inevitable feeling that this is an unnatural place for hikers to be setting foot. The 30-metre drop to the Black Ooze (yes, it really is called that) of the River Orwell below is held at bay by just a concrete ledge a little more than a metre high. This is certainly not comfortable strolling territory, nor a place to suddenly become aware of a hitherto undiscovered acrophobia.
Steps lead up sharply to the bridge walkway, past a Samaritans sign that bears a short but kind message and a phone number. Like steps to the gallows, the certainty that you are shadowing the last steps taken by some desperately unhappy souls is chilling. At the top is a free phone, proof that someone cares, although the lorries flying by seem wholly indifferent. The views along the Orwell estuary are pleasing – green fields, houses snuggled in woodland, little boats bobbing in silver water – but the constant thrum of the traffic, and a tangible sense of alienation, do not encourage lingering. The walk across takes around 15 minutes.
Bridges are powerful metaphors for the journeys of life, for transformation. The novelist Ian Banks wrote an entire novel – The Bridge, no less — using an enormous industrial super-complex of a bridge as the dream environment of his comatose crash victim protagonist. Religion and mythology make good use of the bridge as metaphor too and the crossing of a body of water — the River Jordan, River Styx — is ascribed a spiritual meaning. Most of the time though, our concerns are more mundane: if crossing the Orwell Bridge on foot is disturbing then it is because of its height and heavy traffic as much as its psycho-geographic imprint.
Elsewhere in the world, where health and safety concerns are not held as sacred as they are here in the West, dodgy-looking footbridges have been used daily for generations without much fuss. The one illustrated here is over the Hunza River in the far north of Pakistan. To be honest, it is a little nerve-wracking to traverse, especially when local villagers join you and the bridge sways nauseatingly above the rapid rock-filled glacial river beneath. More alarming still is to cross halfway only to discover a missing slat and the necessity of making a jump to the next complete one.
In contrast, this footbridge feels much safer; nurturing even. Perhaps it is its solid organic nature that reassures, and also the surprising realisation that it hardly sways at all? This remarkable feat of bio-engineering, which resembles something that Frodo might have encountered in The Lord of The Rings, is one of many living root bridges found in the deep, rain-washed valleys of Meghalaya, northeast India. Fashioned from the living roots of fig (Ficus elastica) trees that grow alongside the region’s turbulent monsoon streams they take decades to build but last for centuries. You can read my article on them in Geographical magazine here.
Returning closer to home, to the Waveney Valley in fact, here is a short extract from Slow Norfolk & Suffolk that describes an encounter on the bridge across the Waveney at Mendham on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Perhaps bridges do affect us psychologically more than we might credit?
This is classic Waveney Valley scenery — the sort of thing Munnings might have painted if he had not concentrated on horse fairs or attacking modernism quite so much. It’s the kind of landscape that brings reverie. The iron bridge crossing the Waveney seems like a giant staple attaching Norfolk to the Suffolk mainland. Brown cows wandering the meadows contentedly graze and flick flies away, keeping their eyes on a pair of locals fishing beneath the trees and catching nothing. As poplars rustle in the breeze, the very English sound of an accordion drifts down from the Munnings pub. It could almost be the 18th century, if it wasn’t from the fishermen’s car parked by the road. As I am taking all this in, a man who is clearly the worse for drink ambles down the road towards the bridge. He stumbles exactly halfway across, pauses for a moment, then goes back the way he has come. It is as if he is fearful to place his feet on Norfolk soil, or there is some sort of invisible barrier. Two minutes later, a sleek Jaguar arrives from the north to pick the man up. Then it turns around and ferries him back across the bridge… into Norfolk.