Everyone knows that one of the great benefits of being a Freemen of the City of London is that you are permitted to drive your sheep across London Bridge. This dates back to the days when, as a ‘free’ man working in the City of London you were allowed to carry your tools across the bridge for free. Sheep were the tools of the trade as far as woolmen were concerned.
No one is quite sure when animals were last regularly driven across the Bridge in
earnest, but probably the internal combustion engine put paid to that. The tradition was re introduced in 2008 and drives are now held on an annual basis organised by the Woolmen’s Company. I took part this year together with Leif Martinez and Mark Kelly. There’s not much driving going on, its more about controlling the sheep who seem to be very keen to rush off to pastures new. So a group of young farmers walk backwards in front of the sheep and you follow on dutifully behind trying to avoid a day’s aggregation of sheep droppings. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable sport and some people dress up either in their livery robes or as Bo Beep or even medieval monks.
I like to think I played some role in the reintroduction of this excellent fund-raising event. In 2006 I organised a sheep drive from Southwark Cathedral to Smithfield Market as a part of the London Festival of Architecture. Instead of going over London Bridge we took the Millennium Bridge to highlight the changing infrastructure and connections across the river. We had Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano as shepherds and about 10,000 people turned out to watch. We walked together with wardens of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, which alerted the Animal Rights Activists who thought the poor things were to be slaughtered on arrival at Smithfield. The activists made a lot of noise and continued their protest along the route despite us insisting that at the end of the walk they would be packed off back to their home in the hills of Cumbria .