Boris Johnson’s channel bridge would be a car crash in more ways than one

Boris cycling. Image: Getty.

As Boris Johnson’s Churchillian dream of a road bridge across the Channel Tunnel emerged and then quickly disappeared, it got me questioning a logistical issue. The French drive on the right, and the English on the left; so what would happen in the middle of Boris’s hypothetical bridge? If it was going to be the high speed connection that he hoped for, it wouldn't do to have an automobile mosh pit in the middle.

The UK has the privilege of being an island, so the two systems don’t ever meet. The same sadly can’t be said for the rest of the Left-Hand Traffic world – largely countries which were, at one point, a part of the British Empire. Just as we exported our uniquely difficult range of units to the colonies, so too did we insist they drive on the left.

Blue = Left Hand Traffic, Red = RHT. Image: Benjamin D. Esham/Wikimedia Commons.

As empires collapsed and the world globalised, the left driving countries trended towards driving on the right. Sometimes this was just to spite their previous colonial oppressors, but there were also local and regional considerations as well. After all, if your larger, more economically powerful neighbours used a different system, you might align with them to encourage cross border trade etc (looking at you, Canada).

Pakistan considered swapping sides in the 60s but couldn’t because of the wide use of camels. The camel trains had been trained to keep to the left so that riders could get some shut eye during the long journeys, and it was considered too difficult to retrain them, so the whole country kept with Left-Hand Traffic (LHT).

So, thanks to a weird mix of history and local context, we now have borders across the world where Left- and Right-Hand Traffic meet.  Poor LHT Thailand and Kenya each have three land borders with countries that drive on the other side of the road. Most of these border points manage the change over with traffic lights, which works when there are only small numbers of vehicles making the switch. But for the billions of cars that Johnson envisions using the Channel Bridge (Chidge?), traffic lights just won’t cut it.

Lotus Bridge in Macau. Image: BurnDuck/Wikimedia Commons.

The Lotus Bridge manages the swap from RHT China to LHT Macau far more smoothly. Macau was a Portuguese colony and as such developed a different system to its larger neighbour. In the same year that the small island was ceded to China, the bridge opened, complete with a clever interchange on the Chinese side to ensure those coming across from Macau ended up on the right side (in both senses of the word). As its title would suggest, the bridge supposedly looks like a lotus flower, although ask a teenage boy and you may receive a different comparison. 

So traffic lights won't cut it for BoJo’s mythical bridge, but neither would an interchange akin to that of the Lotus Bridge. Not only would the British school system collapse under immature giggling, but the project would sink under arguments over which side of the Channel should play host to the interchange, and, thus, on which side you drive on while actually on the bridge. Which is exactly the type of issue that would matter almost nowhere else in the world other than Whitehall and the Élysée Palace, where it would matter greatly.

Therefore, I propose that about half way along this bridge – which will probably never be built anyway probably – the traffic coming from England slowly drops down before looping under the oncoming traffic and coming up again with the opposite lanes on their left. No slow traffic lights required, no phallic interchanges, and no damaged national pride. Boris, where’s my consultation fee?


Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?

These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.

The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.

Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.

Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.

Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.

At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.

Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.

The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.

One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.

This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.

Loudon’s green belt plan. Image:

In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.

Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.

And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.