London owes its existence to its strategic position as a crossing over the River Thames, and since Roman times the city has grown and flourished as a ford as well as a port.
But not all roads to London led from the Channel or the North. One of the most ancient gateways to the capital is from Essex and the current Bow Flyover is just the latest in a long line of crossings over the River Lea, dating back to the times of Julius Caesar.
The original Roman road from London to Essex crossed the Lea at Old Ford – the only remnant now is Old Ford Road at the north end of Bow.
Farmers and their wagons would struggle through the tidal river across the flooded marshes of Leyton and Strat-ford, and on to the haymarkets that ran along what is now the Bow and Mile End Road.
But so treacherous was the crossing that Maud, the Queen of England, almost lost her life in the attempt, in 1118.
It was another 58 years before the bridge was started, but that still came 60 years before the first bridge was built over the Thames. And Bow Bridge had another claim to fame: it was the first in Britain with a stone arch. Unlike earlier wooden constructions, this was built to last.
And last it did, through long arguments about who was responsible for its upkeep and its repairs.
In the 16th century it lay within the jurisdiction of the old Langthorne Abbey at Stratford, remembered now in the Abbey Mills area to the east of the Lea.
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1535, he may have swelled the royal coffers, but he left Bow Bridge parentless.
The row rumbled on, astonishingly, for 300 years. In 1834, the Abbey landowners finally agreed to share the cost with the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust. Stratford lay in Essex and Bow in Middlesex and the trust’s engineer, James Walker, proposed a new stone bridge of one arch, its span of 70 feet and width of 41 feet more worthy of forming the principal connection between the counties of Middlesex and Essex .
In Walker’s words lay the real problem of the Bow Bridge: as the principal connection between the city and the farms that supplied it, it became a notorious traffic blackspot, with horses and carts taking hours to cross the Lea. The biggest corn merchant, Goulds, actually had its premises at Bow Bridge wharf.
So, in 1898, the London County Council proposed another new bridge, less than 70 years after the previous replacement had been built.
The new bridge was a plainer, metal affair and the cost was split between the LCC, West Ham Council and the River Lea Conservancy Board.
The result, Thomas D’Akers Bridge, stands to this day, although hidden under the roundabout beneath the flyover. It replaced the old Bow Bridge and a couple more to the north, the St Michael’s and Peg’s Hole Bridges, whose foundations were dug up and incorporated in the fabric of the new crossing.
But by the 1960s the crossing faced a new kind of congestion – cars. More than 1,000 an hour crawled over the bridge during the rush hour, and plans were laid for a flyover. In 1963 work started, at a cost of £1,784,500.
Today the bridge carries commuters out to Essex and East Anglia; hundreds of years ago it was used by arable farmers, but Bow’s proud history remains – as the first river bridge into London.