Years ago, on a footbridge over a railway line in south Surrey, a padlock locked to the footbridge’s mesh side. Seen, puzzled over (why would you attach a padlock to a footbridge?), then forgotten.
Last year, on the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, a sign saying “NO LOCKS – FINE $100”. Seen, puzzled over (why would you need to tell people not to attach locks?), then forgotten.
Later last year, on a pillar at the end of Westminster Bridge in London, more padlocks. Seen, puzzled over, now a nagging puzzle.
A few weeks ago, on the railings of a jetty on the Thames, yet more padlocks. Seen, filed away as evidence. This is a thing, isn’t it?
Last week, a DVD of the scandalously under-watched TV series Parks And Recreation. Leslie and Ben in Paris, locking a padlock to a bridge already bristling with others, their names written on it. This is what it is, this thing, isn’t it?
And sure enough, it was.
The humble padlock is the interface between infrastructure for pedestrian transport and a cultural phenomenon with roots that probably go back to before recorded history.
Nobody knows for sure where or why it started, but the modern practice of couples writing their names on padlock, locking it to a bridge, and then throwing the key into the water below to symbolise a love that can never be undone, is at least a century old. One possible source of the practice dates to the First World War and a star-crossed couple from Vrnjačka Banja in Serbia. Their engagement was broken when the Serbian soldier involved went to war and fell in love with another woman (men, eh?) where he was posted. His fiancée died, apparently of a broken heart, and other women in Vrnjačka Banja started attaching ‘love locks’ of their own to the bridge over the river where the couple used to meet, in an effort to safeguard their own loves.
As to whether that was the original origin of the practice, or whether the local women had heard of the idea from somewhere else and adopted it for their own ends, we will perhaps never know.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st Century that the attaching of love locks to bridges suddenly became a widespread phenomenon. Who knows why a practice that had lain largely dormant for 90 years should suddenly become widespread? How and why does any cultural behaviour explode on a global scale, after all?
Whatever the reason, love locks were soon appearing on bridges over rivers in cities as far apart as Venice (Italy), Canberra (Australia), Berlin (Germany) where a fine is payable if you are caught doing so, and Toronto (Canada). They’re still being affixed to bridges in towns and cities around the world.
The most famous location for love locks, however, is Paris, where their attachment to bridges over the Seine and the cities canals reached epidemic proportions in the 2010s.
A campaign to prevent what was perceived as an eyesore by some was launched (“Free your love. Save our bridges”), but things really came to a head in 2014 when part of the parapet of the Pont des Arts collapsed under the sheer weight of the metal attached to it, after which the locks were forcibly removed (at what cost to the relationships of those who left them, no scientific study has ever been commissioned to explain).
No wonder that the New York Department of Transportation doesn’t want padlocks attached to the Brooklyn Bridge. Imagine the splash if part of that thing collapsed.
Some locations, by contrast, have encouraged the leaving of love locks. Lovelock, Nevada (USA) (the name is a coincidence but must have been irresistible as the practice caught on around the world) is one. The Forth Road Bridge, where in 2014 panels for approved love locks were installed, is another.
Attaching padlocks to bridges might be a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of the grand sweep of history, but it can trace its ancestry back to something much older. Humans have been making offerings to the river gods for countless millenia. Prehistoric structures in what is now Vauxhall are some of London’s oldest, and are associated with what appear to be votive offerings. The Museum of London has countless examples of objects retrieved from the Thames which appear to have been placed there deliberately. Similar offerings turn up all the time, across the world (though I particularly like the ard found in a long-lost channel of the upper Thames, discovered during the digging of a rowing lake).
Rivers were channels of communication, but hostile ones. They changed course, flooded, ran high, ran dry. They were one of the few places where, in still shallows at the edges of a sluggish river, pre-technological humans could see the reflection of their own faces. No wonder then that these waters, with their shifting moods, their capacity to drown, the mirror people under the surface, were thought to be ruled by deities who could be appeased or persuaded by gifts placed into the water.
Even today, the influence of our prehistoric ancestors is closer than we might care to admit. We still have wishing wells aplenty, ready to receive our coins in exchange for the hope of supernatural intervention in our problems, or those of others that we wish to see solved. It doesn’t even have to be a designated wishing well. Peer into even the smallest public water feature in the mundane surroundings of an indoor shopping mall, and you’ll find coins at its bottom. Why do we do this? Scratch the surface of a modern, tech-loving human, and there’s a cave-dweller lurking underneath.
So why did I once find a padlock on a footbridge over the railway in south Surrey? We have been talking about rivers, have we not?
Yet how different is a railway from a river, really? It is similarly a means of communication, but a hostile environment best kept out of. For most people (not you; you’re reading a transport/culture blog after all) the way the railway operates is a mystery, just as rivers are mysterious places for land-dwellers. How many people actually know what the third rail is and does? How railway signalling actually works? A key dropped down onto the railway tracks (for the avoidance of doubt this blog disapproves entirely of throwing anything onto railway tracks at any time) is lost just as surely as one dropped into a river.
Piers and bridges which allow people to cross water or railway have their own magic, which we feel today. These are places where two different environments intersect. Where better to entreat the old gods of the rivers, or the new gods of the railways, for the steadfastness of our relationships, in which two different people meet?
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