Bakewell’s Weir Bridge may polarise opinion but it’s hard not to be touched by some of the life stories found there. Richard Bradley heads to the town to learn more about this relatively recent tradition

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In Bakewell, thousands of real-life stories involving people living all over the world converge at the otherwise utilitarian location of Weir Bridge, a short bridge over the River Wye linking Bakewell to the Agricultural Business Centre, written on or etched into metal padlocks known as ‘lovelocks’.

Part of folklore’s appeal is, to me, its inherent mystery. We can never, for example, be entirely sure who made the first Derbyshire well dressing, nor how the mysterious Castleton Garland began; we can only conjecture.

Great British Life: Beautiful Bakewell, where the popularity of lovelocks can be a divisive issue among locals Photo: Gary WallisBeautiful Bakewell, where the popularity of lovelocks can be a divisive issue among locals Photo: Gary Wallis

Academic, archaeologist and author of Unlocking the Love-Lock, Ceri Houlbrook, cites one of the earliest documented lovelock sites as Pécs, Hungary, in the 1980s.

He notes a scene in Federico Moccia’s 2006 romantic novel I Want You, in which a character affixes a padlock to the Ponte Milvio bridge in Rome, that turbo-charged awareness of the custom, with the practice rapidly adopted thereafter.

There are at least two rival theories as to how lovelocks originated. One goes that in the Serbian town of Vrnjačka Banja, a man named Relja went to fight in the First World War, leaving his schoolmistress sweetheart Nada behind.

Relja was posted to Greece where he fell in love with a woman from Corfu and settled there, breaking off his engagement to Nada, who subsequently died of a broken heart.

Consequently, the young women of Vrnjačka Banja began writing the names of their lovers on padlocks and attaching them to the bridge where Relja and Nada used to meet as a superstitious insurance policy against the same thing happening to them.

Great British Life: Lovelocks on Weir Bridge, Bakewell Photo: Richard BradleyLovelocks on Weir Bridge, Bakewell Photo: Richard Bradley

The second theory claims the practice began in China, and that after a courting couple have attached a lock to the bridge they throw the key into the running water below. If the river subsequently dries up, this is a sure sign breakup will follow.

This is an interesting example of an object being cast into water for luck, a phenomenon with a long and varied history, encompassing everything from Derbyshire’s well dressings to the wishing well in Bakewell’s Bath Gardens, in which passersby toss pennies, a continuation of a similar practice dating back thousands of years, on the evidence of Roman coins discovered in the waters of Poole’s Cavern, near Buxton.

It has proved difficult to establish the origins of the lovelock custom in Bakewell, especially when the very first lock was placed on the bridge.

According to Richard Young, retired Bakewell businessman and founder of the Save the Love Locks, ‘The first locks appeared in 2012 and I have been keeping an eye on them ever since’.

However, David Brammer comments online, ‘We got married in Bakewell in 1998, the year after we put a lock on, but there were very few locks at the time’.

Interestingly, 1998 was the year the town’s flagship Agricultural Business Centre was opened, necessitating the construction of Weir Bridge to allow access.

Great British Life: Bakewell Cobbler Shaun Curtis in his Matlock Street shop Photo: Richard BradleyBakewell Cobbler Shaun Curtis in his Matlock Street shop Photo: Richard Bradley

This date of origin is however rejected by enterprising cobbler Shaun Curtis, who from his town centre premises offers a bespoke engraving service on a variety of models of padlock for people to place on the bridge.

‘I reckon it’s been going for the last nine years or so – you lose track of time a little bit because of the pandemic years.’

All this demonstrates anything of a folkloric nature seems destined to be shrouded in a degree of mystery - even traditions of the recent past which start in an era with access to a variety of advanced methods of recording information.

Whilst we can’t say for certain when the first lock appeared at Bakewell, over the past decade they have swelled to several thousand, covering the rails on both sides of the bridge.

The first lovelock Shaun can remember selling was to a young lady working in Bakewell who came into his shop having recently become engaged in Paris.

Her request sticks in his mind as it was the first he’d heard of lovelocks and was initially puzzled, requiring the concept to be explained by his customer.

Perhaps she had seen the lovelocks on the bridges of Paris, where their presence causes an ongoing headache for city authorities – in 2014, the weight of the accumulated padlocks on the Pont Des Arts bridge was blamed for the collapse of part of the parapet.

A cobbler is a highly practical job. As I interviewed Shaun in his shop, he had to occasionally break off to fire a gun-like apparatus at a stiletto heel or tend to a glowing orange furnace roaring away on a side wall before picking up the conversation again.

With his lovelock sideline, Shaun finds himself regularly drawn into the emotional lives of strangers. ‘Every lock’s got a story – I could write a book about them’, he tells me.

Inevitably, some customers’ stories stick in his mind. One harrowing example was a lock he was asked to engrave to memorialise a nine-year-old girl who had died of meningitis.

Her family came into Shaun’s shop the following day to have the lovelock made, feeling they needed to get out of the house and do something productive.

Weir Bridge is now well and truly plastered with lovelocks. This presented Derbyshire County Council with an unusual and delicate problem when it was identified back in 2021 that maintenance work needed to be carried out on the bridge, necessitating the removal of the lovelocks.

Given the majority are placed to commemorate major life events – births, relationships, marriages, deaths – there is an incalculable amount of emotion concentrated on this small bridge.

In 2015, I photographed a handful of lovelocks which I noticed had cropped up on the bridge linking Matlock’s Hall Leys Park with Dale Road.

Later that year, the bridge required routine work and repainting. Derbyshire Dales District Council managed to nip things in the bud early in Matlock, announcing they were removing the locks to conduct the works and subsequently placing signs on the bridge saying lovelocks were no longer permitted on the structure.

Great British Life: Lovelocks on the bridge at Hall Leys Park, Matlock, are no longer permitted Photo: Richard BradleyLovelocks on the bridge at Hall Leys Park, Matlock, are no longer permitted Photo: Richard Bradley

At Bakewell, an earlier attempt had been made to remove the lovelocks. Shaun remembered that in the early days of the phenomenon the locks were taken off - including one which commemorated a baby who had died. The baby’s mother contacted the council to complain, and a meeting between her and council representatives, which took place on the bridge itself, resulted in the locks being reinstated.

An alternative proposal to the locks being simply junked once removed to conduct bridge work is that they be incorporated into some sort of specially commissioned memorial sculpture elsewhere in the town.

At the time of writing, the situation remains at an impasse; when I contacted Derbyshire County Council about the work needed on the bridge and their viewpoint on the lovelocks, their spokesperson replied, ‘We need to carry out some routine maintenance on the bridge and would need to remove the locks to do this work. At the moment we don’t have any specific dates for this work’.

Elsewhere, the presence of the lovelocks is not universally welcomed. When I told a fellow folklorist I was covering lovelocks for this article, their response was vehement: ‘I detest those bridge padlocks! It’s meaningless as a love gesture when so many others do it. They ought to be removed… send flowers instead’.

‘It’s not for everybody’, Shaun acknowledges, ‘you can’t please everyone – a lot of locals don’t like it’.

He recalled one confrontation with a Bakewell citizen after a family had been in the shop to commission an engraved padlock and had nipped over the road to the café opposite Shaun’s premises whilst the work was completed.

‘I have to walk over that bridge every day – it looks a mess’, complained the local, adding ‘And you’ve made a lot of money out of it’.

‘Yes but hang on,’ countered Shaun, ‘that family of four have just gone to the café – they’ll spend 30 quid whilst they’re there. The café uses local suppliers – Bakewell Bakery, Hope Valley Ice Cream – so that’s all money going into the local economy – they’ll pay for parking in the town, and so on.

‘Then in nine months’ time they’ll think, “What shall we do today – I know, let’s have a run to Bakewell and find our lovelock on the bridge and have lunch” – so that’s another 30 quid going to the café – I don’t make any more money from it once I’ve sold them the lock’.

As another example of how the lovelocks benefited the town, Shaun cited a couple from Doncaster who loved coming to Bakewell so much they saved up to get married there and had their wedding photos taken on the bridge as they attached their padlock: ‘That’s 80 people, all staying at the Rutland Hotel, and spending money whilst they’re here’.

Shaun was ultimately sanguine about the uncertain future of the lovelocks’ presence on the bridge, accepting he’d had a good run in this unanticipated sideline: ‘If it ends, it ends,’ he muses.