How leaving padlocks became a modern-day romantic ritual

A couple cross Cologne's Hohenzollernbruecke bridge in 2011. Image: Getty.

Cities as distant and varied as Moscow and Manchester, New York and Newport, Beijing and Blackpool all have one striking feature in common. Masses of padlocks, engraved with the names or initials of love-struck couples, bedeck notable landmarks such as bridges and fences – sometimes to the ire of local authorities.

The exact origins of the “love locking” practice are unknown, but it rapidly gained global momentum after emerging in Rome and Paris during the 2000s. The locks have become romantic tokens – universal symbols for the commitment, strength and constancy of a relationship.

Yet this symbol of unity has proven ironically polarising. Many authorities view the custom negatively, and collections of love locks have been removed from bridges following safety concerns. Such worries are not misplaced: in 2014, a railing on the Pont des Arts in Paris collapsed under the weight of its love locks.

Pont Des Arts: smothered in love. Image: Nik Boiv/Flickr/creative commons.

The following year, the bolt-cutters were out in force, and over one million padlocks (weighing 45 tonnes), were removed from the bridge to prevent further damage. Similar responses have been seen worldwide, from Leeds to Melbourne.

Forbidden love

But in many cases it’s not concern about a bridge’s structural integrity that sees authorities reaching for the bolt-cutters – it’s anxiety over aesthetics. In many cities, love locking has been classified an act of vandalism. Signs are erected on bridges to discourage the practice.

In Florence, the city’s council went so far as to criminalise it, sparking controversy in 2005 by threatening a fine of €50 for anyone caught attaching a padlock to the Ponte Vecchio.

Residents of some cities also disapprove of the practice. In Paris, two US expats founded the vociferous No Love Locks campaign, pushing for a ban on what they called a “destructive force”. And recently, in Bristol, an anonymous local resident fronted an online crowdfunding crusade to “lose the locks” on Pero’s Bridge.

Where is the love? Not in Leeds. Image: Ceri Houlbrook/author provided.

Members of the media have likewise boarded the anti-love lock bandwagon, with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones proving particularly disparaging. The world’s cities, he lamented, are suffering from a “plague of padlocks”, thanks to a custom which he cuttingly condemns as “one of the shallowest, stupidest, phoniest expressions of love ever devised”.

And yet.

The one million love locks removed from the Pont des Arts amount to two million people who disagree with Jonathan Jones. And this is just the figure from one site – there are hundreds, probably thousands, around the world. Rather than regarding love-locking as a vapid act of vandalism, I’d argue that it’s a form of modern-day heritage.

Lock it down

Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has defined sites of world cultural heritage as being “of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view”. Surely, these masses of love locks – which represent what is probably the most widespread ritual deposit of the 21st century – constitute sites of outstanding universal value. So, why aren’t ethnographers, anthropologists, and cultural heritage specialists clamouring to preserve this custom, either in practice or in print?

Ageism is the likeliest culprit. Antiquity is often viewed as a virtue, lending “authenticity” and “value” to any object with a good few centuries behind it. The only thing that distinguishes love locks from other ritual objects such as Bronze Age river deposits, votive offerings on the Athenian acropolis, or Roman coin hoards is age. Patina ensures protection.

Love is timeless. Image: Sharada Prasad/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet UNESCO claims that “heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations”. The objects and sites of today are just as much a part of our heritage as those of the past – perhaps even more so. The global spread of love locks makes them a part of everyone’s heritage: not exclusive to particular regions, cultures or classes, love locks can be attached anywhere, by anyone. Surely, this is culture at its most democratic.


I’m not suggesting that we encourage the practice – especially where it poses a safety risk – but we should be doing more to preserve this unique piece of our global cultural heritage. Heritage specialists should be engaging with love lock sites on a case-by-case basis; contemporary archaeologists should be cataloguing these ritual deposits before they’re disposed of. Rather than waiting for love locks to develop the heritage “value” that comes with age – so that future generations will have nothing to ponder over but remnants – we should be engaging with this custom now, while it’s still thriving.The Conversation

Ceri Houlbrook is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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