Once a building is erected, people don’t give it much thought. Unless, of course, it stands the test of time and becomes a piece of history. In England, where castles and estates dot the countryside, older structures like houses and bridges have become a source of fascination, and with good reason.

When a 300-year-old, flood-damaged bridge was brought to the attention of historians, they knew they had to try to save it. But that’s when things got complicated. They found it wasn’t just a pretty monument to Britain’s bygone days — it was hiding a secret no one saw coming.

Since October 2018, historians and contractors alike have worked on a bridge in Blenheim, England. Their mission is two-fold: to restore the bridge to its former glory and to possibly unveil its centuries-old secrets…

The Grand Bridge, part of the Blenheim Palace estate, was once called the finest view in England, but it has since been flooded, drained, and forgotten. A true shame, given its history.

The Blenheim Palace estate was the birthplace of British prime minister Winston Churchill back in 1874. In fact, it was his father who claimed the Grand Bridge was such a fine view, and Hollywood filmmakers seem to agree…

You might recognize it from Severus Snape’s flashback in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix or as Palazzo Cadenza in James Bond: Spectre. Other films set at Blenheim include Gulliver’s Travels, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and Transformers: The Last Knight.

However, Blenheim Palace has a lot more historical relevance than all that. It was a reward for the victory in the 1704 Battle of Blenheim, where the British fought the French and the Bavarians.

It has since been home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, titles currently held by Charles James Spencer-Churchill and his wife Edla Spencer-Churchill. It is the Duke and his board of trustees who are in charge of the estate and the restoration of the bridge.

 

Still, there’s more to the bridge than just historical significance and good looks. While it is indeed known for its aesthetically pleasing appearance, there’s something unique about this bridge: the viaduct is habitable, meaning there’s a hidden home in its pillars!

This never-before-executed concept was the work of Baroque architect Sir John Vanbrugh (which coincidentally means “of the bridge!”) who designed the bridge in 1708. Construction finished in 1710 when it was nicknamed The Vanbrugh Bridge.

Unfortunately, the bridge did not remain as Vanbrugh had envisioned it. Landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown thought an estate like Blenheim needed impressive lakes, and the bridge and its chambers have been flooded ever since.

In fact, the lakes (known as the Great Lake and the Queen Pool) present the biggest threat to the bridge as they’ve slowly been drying out, which could make the bridge unstable since the structure has “adjusted” to its place in the water.

What causes the lakes to dry up is the amount of silt in the water, which has built up for decades. To resolve this, engineers needed to remove 400,000 tons of it from the lake beds until they matched their 18th-century depth.

Once the process started, the 30 rooms inside the bridge were revealed once again, and everybody was eager to see what was hidden beneath the water for centuries. Luckily, several photographs were recently published.

Even though the rooms were only open for an estimated 60 years, its inhabitants and visitors definitely left their marks – in more ways than one. And to prove that humanity never changes, someone even carved their name in the wall back in 1753.

Apart from the “graffiti,” the explorers found the ghostly remains of fireplaces, stairways, cooking ranges, and even a theater! All around there were bits of plaster still on the wall, indicating that people didn’t just come to visit – they lived there.

Meanwhile, a long, sunken boat from the 1950s still floated inside its canal system with motor and all. It was likely used to cut reeds even long after the bridge flooded but was left abandoned with the rest of the home.

Of course, the restoration of the Grand Bridge was no small task, and there were many other maintenance issues around the estate. Roy Cox, the head of estate, explained that this was their most costly and challenging project to date.

To afford all of these pricey restoration plans, the estate housed fundraisers and paid events like art exhibits to attract more tourism and get the money they needed to uphold such a beloved and important landmark in the community.

On top of that, the estate makes an extra buck by doubling as a museum. Visitors can pay to see the palace, Hyde Park, and the Pleasure Gardens, which are connected by a small railway. You could literally get lost in there for hours!

And let’s not forget: thousands of people swim to Blenheim every year to watch or participate in the annual Blenheim Triathlon and the Blenheim Half Marathon, which support causes like the British Heart Foundation and blood cancer research.

There are plenty of other reasons to visit this magnificent historical site, with the restoration of the Grand Bridge being one of them.

Meanwhile, in London, just a two-hour drive from Blenheim Palace, historians conducting some routine renovations of their own uncovered a game-changing piece of history.

Christopher Woodward, Museum Director for London’s Garden Museum, envisioned beautiful renovations to the centuries-old building he operated. So, naturally, he panicked when site manager Karl Patten called him with an ominous request.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

“I think you better come here quickly,” Karl told Christopher over the phone. It sounded like bad news, and given the history of the building, there was a lot that could go wrong. For instance…

Garden Museum / Vimeo

The museum was located within the medieval church, St. Mary-at-Lambeth, not far from the River Thames. Beside it was the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and across the river was Westminster Abbey—both priceless structures. Had the construction damaged something irreplaceable?

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Christopher arrived at his museum, and Karl explained the situation. “We were exposing the ground as part of the job,” he said, “and we uncovered an entry to what looked like a tomb.” Christopher’s mind was racing—uncovering a tomb should have been impossible.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Christopher explained. “We were told there was no crypt because it was so close to the Thames, it would have flooded … [and] in the 1850s … they cleared out hundreds if not thousands of coffins” to install underfloor heating. So what the heck had Karl found?

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Putting safety first, Karl (right) retrieved a camera, attached it to the end of a stick, and lowered it into the chamber. Then, from the ground level, the men peered into the lower level of the church.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Down through the hatch were more than a dozen coffins—30 to be exact. More curious than the coffins themselves, however, was the brilliant object that was perched atop one of them…

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Christoper was floored. “I came in thinking this [phone call] sounds like bad news, problem, and wow, and it’s the crown—it is the mitre of an Archbishop gleaming there in the dark.” But somehow, that wasn’t the most impressive discovery!

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Among the coffins discovered in the lower-level crypt were those of five archbishops—all of whom had extensive and historically impactful resumes to their names! One coffin, for instance, bore a plaque with the name John Moore.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

John Moore served as Archbishop from 1783 to 1805. Described as amiable, he led movements in support of Sunday schools and missionary enterprises. Still, historians working on the project were drawn to one coffin in particular…

Along with Archbishops Thomas Tenison (left, who reigned 1695 to 1715), Matthew Hutton (1757 to 1758), and Frederick Cornwallis (1768 to 1783), Christopher discovered the remains of Archbishop Richard Bancroft (right). You might be familiar with his work…

Archbishop Bancroft served from 1604 to 1610; during his tenure, he oversaw the writing and publishing of the King James translation of the Holy Bible! Historians involved in the project couldn’t contain their excitement.

The Telegraph

“To know that possibly the person that commissioned the King James Bible is buried here is the most incredible discovery,” Wesley Kerr, a historian and horticulturist, said. It “greatly adds to the texture of this project.” And yet the crypt contained more than its share of mysteries, too.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

“We still don’t know who else is down there,” Christopher said, as the contents of all 30 coffins hadn’t been identified. Still, the church’s history might’ve had held some answers: more archbishops and their families.

“This church had two lives,” Christopher said. “It was the parish church of Lambeth … but it was also a kind of annex to Lambeth Palace itself … Over the centuries a significant number of … archbishops … chose to worship [and be buried].”

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Perhaps most amazing of all, however, was that, by all accounts, this discovery should have never been possible. “Every archaeologist in London has looked in this building,” Christopher said, “but nobody told us to expect us to find anything.”

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As for Christopher’s findings, he didn’t have any grand plans to remove the coffins or crown. To respect the dead, he and the Garden Museum left the bodies right where they were—though he didn’t shut them away completely from the public eye.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Once the 18-month, £7.5 million redevelopment project was completed in 2017, the Garden Museum presented a single pane of glass that would cover the entry to the tomb. So, what did that mean for Garden Museum patrons?

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It meant that, as they perused the museum and inspected installations that beautifully captured bits and pieces of London’s colorful history, they, too, could stumble upon the hidden crypt of the archbishops!

Hyper Allergic