Having on several occasions whiled away an afternoon in the Museum of London, I knew that it could only be accessed from a high-level walkway above London Wall but I’d never given this too much thought. I also knew of a couple of pedestrian bridges I’d spotted that I had no idea where they went. And of course I knew about the weird concrete maze of the Barbican — London’s ugliest building by far — but I didn’t know they were related, part of a deliberate post-war plan to build the city of the future. They called it the Pedway!
The Pedway Project
Paved with Good Intentions
As I’ve noted before on various occasions, the future goes out of date surprisingly quickly. Today there is little sign of the Pedway project; just fragments here and there. Like an elevated road to hell, it started with the very best intentions, namely the desire to avoid road accidents by separating pedestrians from traffic. The plan was simple — to leave the vehicles on the ground and raise the people up one level onto walkways in the sky.
More “Menace” than “Venice”
The more traditionally minded amongst London’s planners dreamt wistfully of Venice, where paths and bridges thread across the canals. But that was never going to be; post-war austerity would never stretch to the budget needed to recreate the Bridge of Sighs. And even if it did, the capital’s architects were afflicted by a frightful malady, a kind of futuristic mania, in the grip of which they yearned for brutalist concrete and cared not at all for the people that would have to live with it. Would Joe Public earn them an architectural award? No, he would not. Such acclaim could only come from their equally afflicted colleagues.
And thus their plans were drawn. Large swathes of London lay as rubble and rebuilding was already underway. Henceforth all planning permission for large, central buildings would come with a proviso — first floor access must be provided to connect the building to the Pedway. And so slowly it grew…
The trouble was, it grew like a cancer or infection. There was no over-arching plan, each building connected as its architect saw fit, providing only such pedway space as they would grudgingly concede. In consequence, the pedway never really gelled. It was a maze of paths not really going anywhere, and with nothing much up there to tempt you up the stairs. They tried adding kiosks, even the odd pub and shop, but it was too little too late.
An Unloved Experiment
Londoners were accustomed to moving about at ground level and the pedway — though not a bad concept — had badly failed to sell itself. Meanwhile, their status was thrown into question by the capital’s police, who were unsure as to their powers upon the pedway. Were they streets or private property? It was unclear…
By the 1980s, London gave up on the pedway and planning consent ceased to mention it. Subsequent development tore down the shoddy concrete-cancer-ridden monstrosities of the 1950s and replaced them with glass and steel and often no hint of the pedway. And the future quickly disappeared into the past.
Well, mostly. Some of its still stands; I decided to go look for it.
Lower Thames Street
I started near the northern end of London Bridge, from which one can look down Lower Thames Street to a mysterious footbridge that seems just to link two office blocks.
A twin to that bridge crosses Wormwood Street at the eastern end of London Wall. I could see this bridge from the office I was working in and a quick poll of my colleagues revealed that none of us had ever seen anyone on it. I had to investigate.
A flight of stairs in the left-hand building let me climb up onto the bridge, which I crossed to the building on the right. I think you used to be able to walk round a balcony on its left-hand side to the mandatory first-floor entrance but I don’t know for sure as that walkway was fenced off. On the right, the balcony leads precisely nowhere, ending at a dead end overlooking St Botulph-without-Bishopsgate.
Having established that the bridge leads nowhere northwards with no access to anything, thus making it utterly pointless, I headed south instead. There, the pedway led through the heart of a building.
Having tunnelled through one building, it immediately tunnelled through another. Until fairly recently it would have emerged near Tower 42 and connected to a section of pedway there but building work on both sides of Bishopsgate has removed another of those bridges and torn down the pedway to which this corridor led. So now it simply ends, as the future ought, terminated by a sudden Blue Screen of Death.
Returning to ground level, I continued down Wormwood Street into London Wall. There a massive new business development is going up — London Wall Place — and I was surprised to see a new footbridge in situ but not yet open. It seems that in a general bucking of the trend the developers have bought into the idea of the pedway and are incorporating it into the new structure.
Naturally, having seen this new bridge, I wondered what was already there that it could connect to. The far end of the left-hand building abuts onto Brewers’ Hall Garden, where a largely unnoticed staircase winds up its side. I imagine most people simply assume it’s a fire escape.
At the top of those stairs is Bassishaw Highwalk, which currently leads nowhere on account of the building work opposite. It also offers views of St Alphage Garden, or it would were it not again for the building work. Basically, it’s currently pointless but once London Wall Place is open, it should all link together to lead all the way to the Barbican.
A little further down London Wall, at the far end of the London Wall Place development is where the remnants of the pedway plan start to get serious.
In fairness, once you’re up that ramp, or if you use the lift or escalators that have also been provided, you find yourself in the one spot where the pedway concept was done mostly right, as Alban Highwalk leads you into a space within an office block that can perhaps be best described as the Mall With Hardly Any Shops.
Actually, I’m being unfair. There are some shops heading west along Bastion Highwalk.
The building is connected to a number of elevated pathways, linking it with the Barbican to the north.
Unfortunately, once you get past the shops, Bastion Highwalk reverts depressingly to form.
At first sight, it looks like this end of London Wall is a rousing success for the pedway concept, with numerous bridges leading off from the Museum of London. The trouble is they almost all lead to stairs down to street level. Only northwards does the pedway continue, because north leads to the Barbican Estate.
The Barbican was arguably the greatest triumph of London’s post-war planners, an integrated estate of housing, shops and an art centre, rendered in the most depressing brutalist concrete. Did I say “depressing?” I meant “exciting”, obviously.
Perhaps the maddest thing about the Barbican isn’t the acres of grey, unfinished concrete but that the concrete isn’t unfinished at all. When you mould concrete, you don’t get that coarse look, you get the smooth contours of the mould you poured it in. The Barbican’s builders employed a team of masons to roughen all the surfaces by hand.
As is usually the case, I quickly reached my maximum saturation of the Barbican aesthetic and decided to curtail my pedway adventure before I threw myself off it. I’m just not a fan of brutalist concrete; can you tell?