The lock of love: For years, couples from around the world have left padlocks on bridges as tokens of their love. Now Britons are unlocking their inner passions too
01:17 GMT, 13 July 2012
07:07 GMT, 13 July 2012
Picture the scene. Paris, in the spring: Easter Sunday morning in the square by Notre Dame, my wife, Heidi, and I are strolling hand-in-hand under the blossom trees by the side of the cathedral.
It’s our first weekend away together since the children were born five years ago.
The sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day in the city of love.
Signed and sealed: 'Love Locks' on the Pont de l'Archeveche, in Paris, France
Ahead, the Pont de l’Archeveche — a bridge linking the Ile de la Cite with the artistic Left Bank. And as we approach it, the most extraordinary, the most Parisian, sight either of us had ever seen.
The railings of the bridge, from bank to bank across the Seine, are covered in padlocks. All shapes and sizes, brass, steel, black and red. And each adorned with its own message — some scrawled with marker pen, others carefully engraved. There must have been thousands of them.
They are messages of love, written by lovers and locked onto the bridge. They glittered and sparkled in the sun — an oddly beautiful mosaic above the river.
Naturally, Heidi and I found a shop, bought a padlock of our own, wrote our names and the date on it, bagged a free spot on the bridge (not easy), and left our own symbol.
We threw the keys (all bar one) into the Seine, took a photo of our lock, made a note of the location and chalked the whole thing up to the sort of experience you would only ever have in Paris.
That sort of thing — the grand romantic gesture, the transforming of the everyday into the extraordinary, the finding of poetry in something so mundane as a padlock — it could only happen on the Continent. We British would never think of it. We’re simply too . . . well, British.
Fast-forward three months and I’m walking across the Millennium Bridge in London on a dank and rainy Monday morning in July.
Dominic Utton and his wife Heidi hope their ancestors will hunt down their lock in Paris
Commuters hurry over the Thames, heads down, collars up, struggling against the wind. Even tourists barely pause to snap St Paul’s or the Tate Modern. Tower Bridge is scarcely visible through the gloom, and you can’t see the hanging Olympic rings at all. And then something catches my eye…
Swinging gaily on one of the wire railings, there is a shiny brass padlock. And a few metres further on, there’s another. And another. And then a pair together. And then a cluster of five, another group of three. Each with messages on, couples’ names, dates. One has a heart painted on it. Another simply reads ‘FOREVER’.
The love locks of Paris, have, it seems, come to London town.
Now, I am not an especially romantic person. I’ve had my moments — but more often than not, pragmatism and traditional English reserve tend to temper most attempts at grand gestures.
I was once asked to write a piece for a magazine on the moment I knew I’d fallen in love with Heidi. And I remember it clearly: spring 2004, I was drinking and playing pool with my best mate, Pat. She was in her flat on the other side of London, nursing the flu.
Suddenly I realised that rather than drinking Guinness and having fun with my friend, I would actually rather be sober and helping my girlfriend recover (plus, to be fair to Pat, I was also losing the game).
So did I throw down my cue, run out of the pub, fly across town and turn up at her door, breathless and clutching a dozen red roses and a packet of Lemsip No. I sent her a text: ‘I bloody love you I do.’
When I proposed (on Heidi’s 34th birthday, in May 2005), I didn’t dare buy a ring myself in case I got a style she didn’t like — so I did it with a replica that came free with my Lord Of The Rings Director’s Cut box set (‘One ring to rule them all,’ it says, in ancient, ahem, Elvish script).
I also spent an hour trying to tie it on a scarlet ribbon around her cat’s neck — before getting scratched so badly I had to abandon the idea.
I’ve kept that Lord Of The Rings ring, however. It’s stayed in my wallet ever since.
Even Heidi’s 40th last year passed without too much romance. We were moving house at the time, plus our car had just been written off and the magazine I was working on had folded, so money was tight. I did manage to get tickets to see her favourite band, Pulp, play Hyde Park, mind . . .
So, as I said, I don’t really do grand gestures — but there are occasions when even the most reserved (or hopeless) of us stumble across something and find our hearts lifted by la vie romantique. And when we saw the love locks on the Pont de l’Archeveche, there was no way I was going to let the opportunity pass to immortalise our own feelings for each other.
As it turns out, the tradition is far older than one might think: it originated in Serbia during World War II, when couples from the town of Vrnjacka Banja symbolically sealed their love before the men went off to fight.
Romantic Britain: 'Love Locks' have started to appear on London's Millennium Bridge
They were mostly confined to that single bridge in Serbia, however, until around a decade ago when they started springing up in Paris, Rome, Florence, Cologne, Prague, even Dublin. But never over here; never in Britain.
The story was always the same. One padlock would appear overnight, a testimony to a lovers’ tryst, a memento of a romantic moment. Within days, it would be joined by others, and then more still . . . until, as on the Pont de l’Archeveche, they become almost a raison d’etre for the bridge itself. So why has it taken so long for the love locks to come to London And why are they appearing now
On that rainy Monday, I counted 13 love locks on the Millennium Bridge. — written on it. We’re leaving it for our children, with instructions to pass it on to their children, and so on.
I’ve got a lovely mental image of our great-grandchild, on her honeymoon in Paris in the year 2090 or so, stopping halfway across the Seine with a GPS locator, looking for a little brass padlock with the names of her ancestors written on it, still faintly legible after all those years.
And if that’s not romantic, I don’t know what is.