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London's Historic Hammersmith Bridge Is At Risk Of Falling Down

NOEL KING, HOST:

Every year, Oxford and Cambridge hold a boat race on the River Thames. This has been going on since World War II, but not this year. A historic bridge is in danger of falling into the river right where the boats pass through. Here's Vicki Barker in London.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Seventy-year-old Paul Gunn (ph), an amateur rower, stands on the north bank of the Thames, gazing bemusedly at Hammersmith Bridge.

PAUL GUNN: It's been a complete disaster, really. And as usual, nobody is claiming responsibility.

BARKER: Last August, engineers inspecting this filigreed, Victorian masterpiece found the hairline cracks in the ironwork that had already closed it to vehicles had widened alarmingly. Parts of the bridge were in danger of falling down. Hammersmith Bridge lies smack in the middle of the boat race route. And Gunn says that stretch of river was also used by hundreds of recreational rowers.

GUNN: Basically means that part of everybody's training or rowing regime has now have to change because we're not allowed to come under the bridge at all.

BARKER: Or over it. Local journalist-turned-campaigner Julia Llewellyn Smith remembers...

JULIA LLEWELLYN SMITH: Feeling like my world had shattered around me. That was seven months ago. And unfortunately, everything has just got worse and worse and worse since then.

BARKER: She lives on the south side of the bridge. That day, her leafy, historic London suburb was cut off from, well, everything - hospitals, workplaces, schools and the only subway or tube stop for miles.

SMITH: We've estimated that about 3,000 children cross the bridge every day just to get to school. And then there's commuters going in that direction, too, to get to the tube. And now everybody is stuck.

BARKER: Businessman Toby Gordon-Smith is one of the more than 16,000 cyclists, pedestrians and wheelchair users who used to cross the bridge daily. He moved here to be close to that wheelchair-accessible tube stop.

TOBY GORDON-SMITH: I'm now completely cut off from it. And rather than 10 minutes in my wheelchair to get to my office, it takes me anything from half an hour to two hours, depending on traffic, to get to my office - just to get to work.

BARKER: Twelve-year-old William Blackshaw's (ph) new school was a short walk over the bridge. Now his commute can take an hour each way.

WILLIAM BLACKSHAW: I was really looking forward to going to my secondary school. It was already hard enough with COVID. And then it was made even worse.

BARKER: William's father, Tim Blackshaw (ph), says there was no Plan B.

TIM BLACKSHAW: They knew back in 2016 that this bridge was in trouble. And I think that's made it even worse - it's the lack of planning and the lack of empathy.

BARKER: Any repair job will be especially complicated because Hammersmith Bridge is officially classified as a historic landmark, one reason Irish nationalists tried to blow it up three times between 1939 and the year 2000. Julia Llewellyn Smith again.

SMITH: A lot of us wish the IRA had made a better job of it. They would have built a new one. And we wouldn't be in the position we're in today, which is just beyond frustrating.

BARKER: Making the bridge safe again for cyclists and pedestrians could cause $65 million. Reopening it to traffic would cost three times that. While politicians squabble over responsibility for Hammersmith Bridge, no one has come up with the money to fix it.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "CROSSINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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