Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

It's no coincidence that the graceful bridge that spans the River Thames in Marlow looks remarkably similar to Budapest's celebrated Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) over the Danube – though the latter is much larger than its English counterpart. Duncan JD Smith discovers that the reason for the similarity lies in the work of William Tierney Clark.

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The journey to Budapest starts at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith. It is one of London’s forty or so Gothic Revival churches and, like many of those churches, it contains memorials from an earlier building. One such remnant at St Paul’s is a wall tablet to civil engineer William Tierney Clark, who died in the parish in 1852.

The tablet is striking and stands out from others in the church. At the top is a delicate depiction of a suspension bridge. In the inscription below, there is mention of “the Danube at Pesth in Hungary.” The tablet is a reminder of Tierney Clark’s talent for bridge building and how it took him far from his Hammersmith home.

Born in Bristol in 1783, Tierney Clark’s interest in engineering was piqued through an apprenticeship with a local shipwright. A stint at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire followed, where he marvelled at the world’s first cast-iron bridge. Inspired by fellow engineer Thomas Telford, he then relocated to London, where he drafted hydraulic works for the West Middlesex Waterworks Company. It was also there, in 1825, that he designed Hammersmith Bridge, the first suspension bridge on the Thames. Given that other Thames crossings were then constructed of wood or stone, Tierney Clark’s graceful chain links suspended from Tuscan-style pylons were revolutionary.

Of Hammersmith Bridge today only the pylon foundations are original. The rest was reworked in iron during the 1880s by sewer supremo Sir Joseph Bazalgette. For an impression of Tierney Clark’s bridge, one must instead head upstream to Marlow in Buckinghamshire. With the collapse there in 1828 of the town’s wooden bridge, and Marlow’s gradual shift from manufacturing hub to waterside resort, a more attractive crossing was required. That this should be modern without detracting from Marlow’s traditional riverside charms made Tierney Clark the ideal architect.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 63.