Bridge across the Atlantic

Oil man Robert P McCulloch paid $2.5m to move one of the world's most famous landmarks from the Thames to the Arizona desert. Trouble is, Nigel Williamson can now confirm, he got the wrong one
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The Independent Travel
The stars and stripes on London Bridge hang limply in the desert air. Welcome to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, home of the most expensive antique in salesroom history. It is now 30 years since the London authorities concluded that under the weight of 20th-century traffic old London Bridge was not falling down but slowly sinking into the Thames mud and would have to be replaced. Amid great controversy the 10,276 numbered granite blocks originally quarried from Scotland and Dartmoor and which had spanned London's river for 130 years were sold to the Americans, shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled in the desert of Mohave County.

All that was missing was some water to flow under the bridge. But Americans go for simple solutions to these problems. No one found anything strange in removing 3 million cubic yards of desert to create a channel to divert the mighty Colorado River from the course it had followed for tens of thousands of years.

For the bridge, plucked from its comfortable, foggy blankets of London grit and soot, the change could not have been more dramatic. Havasu regularly features on US weather reports as the hottest spot in the union. Last summer the place recorded temperatures in excess of 110F on 100 successive days, the thermometer peaking one melting July day at 128. Yet London Bridge seems perfectly at ease under the unrelenting sun, and is now second only to the Grand Canyon among Arizona's top tourist attractions.

Through its elegant arches an endless procession of vessels, from the old paddle steamer Dixie Belle to high-powered wave riders, head for the expanse of blue water from which the city takes its name.

The Havasuvians are proud of their bridge and alongside it there is now a thriving "English Village", complete with a traditional pub serving British beer, a London Transport double-decker bus (now an ice cream parlour), a solid Victorian post box and a red Giles Gilbert Scott telephone kiosk.

The pub, the London Bridge Arms, even has its own genuine Londoner propping up the bar most days and telling stories of the Battle of Britain. A former RAF navigator with a bristling moustache and a pukka accent, he is loved by the Americans. This is my father. What he is doing here is a long story but after 14 years he is literally part of the furniture: the staff of the pub have put a brass plate on his favourite chair, bearing the legend "Sir Neville". He hasn't had to buy a beer for himself since he has been here.

Until 1964 Lake Havasu City did not exist. Today it draws a million visitors a year. Their presence is due to Robert P McCulloch, a visionary oil man and developer who had flown over the area as a Second World War pilot and who decided that the site by the lake was a natural resort location. Together with his architect C V Wood he resolved that what was needed was a centrepiece - something unique to put the new resort on the tourist map and to complement the obvious attractions of the lake.

When McCulloch heard that London Bridge was for sale, $2.5m for such a large slice of British history seemed like a bargain. Rumour has always held that he believed that he was buying the Gothic castellations of Tower Bridge. The story was strenuously denied for years, but Stan Usinowicz, managing editor of the local newspaper, told me that shortly before he died Wood had admitted to him off the record that the rumour was true.

Yet if Havasu is proud of its bridge, the town has a love-hate relationship with its lake. On the one hand, the waters are the only thing that make desert living tolerable. On the other, the lake forms the border between Arizona and California, and every self-respecting Arizonan in a cowboy hat has nothing but contempt for the "Californian crazies". Los Angeles is a five-hour drive and every weekend these urban cowboys arrive with their power boats and jet skis, turning the lake into a playground and behaving as local folklore claims only Californians can.

For away from the lake and the tourists, this is a sleepy, small town, Republican middle America - full of the sort of people who think Ollie North was merely doing his patriotic duty. The front page of The Lake Havasu News-Herald is devoted to amateur dramatic productions and chilli cook-out contests, although the occasional arrest for drunken rowdiness is always big news - particularly if the culprit comes from California.

Equally unpopular are the "snow birds", the thousands who swell the population between October and March, fleeing the harsh northern states for a winter in the sun. Their crimes include driving at 30mph, stealing favoured spots in the parking lot and grabbing all the best tables at Denny's for Sunday brunch.

In truth Lake Havasu is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hundreds of miles of America's most arid desert. You are advised to carry a gallon of water in the car if you should decide to venture out on a summer's day. Rattlesnakes are a common hazard and coyotes run wild through the washes - the wide, dry riverbeds which carry the surface water down to the lake on the rare but blissful occasions when it does rain.

Yet there is no denying that the desert scenery possesses a wild and rugged beauty. Every turn of the road reveals a new vista right out of those John Wayne westerns. Some 50 miles north and a short turn on a winding and rocky section of old Route 66 is Oatman, a real cowboy ghost town and a thriving gold-mining community at the turn of the century.

Today it caters exclusively for tourists, with mock gun fights in the street on a Sunday afternoon - but the donkeys which roam the streets are feral animals, descended from the beasts of the old prospectors, and the tumble-down weather-boarded saloons and corrugated-iron buildings, with names such as "Fast Fannie's", are original. A visit here is a surreal experience - but if you are ever in the city, do drop in to the London Bridge Arms and buy my dad a beer.

Nigel Williamson paid pounds 347 for a return flight from London to Phoenix on Continental via Houston, and a further pounds 120 for the hop to Havasu on America West. The only airline with direct services to Phoenix is British Airways (0345 222111), but other carriers offer lower fares for connecting services.

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