Love’s Labour’s Found: An Intimate Archaeology of the Love-Lock

This Valentine’s Day, Ceri is hoping to catch some elusive Mancunian love-lockers in the act of locking their love. So she’ll be posting herself at Manchester’s iconic love-lock bridge throughout most of the day. Follow her live-tweeting @CeriHoulbrook!

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A Leeds love-lock inscribed ‘JAMES + LOTTIE’. The Love-Lock Diaries.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I want to introduce readers to an archaeological artefact I catalogued late last year. At first glance, it may not look like an object particularly apt for a Valentine’s Day post. It’s a padlock, sitting on a clean white surface in the Highways and Transportation offices of Leeds City Council, aligned to a photography scale. Its surface is heavily rusted; its shackle broken. It is, in truth, a sorry looking specimen; too mundane to be particularly interesting, too damaged to be useful. It’s only the faded lettering, handwritten across the body of the padlock, that physically marks this object out as something more than a broken padlock. The words ‘JAMES + LOTTIE’ written amidst three drawn love-hearts denotes this as an object associated with love. This is a romantic token. This is a love-lock.

What are love-locks? Most of you, I’m sure, will be familiar with these objects. They’re padlocks, typically inscribed with names or initials, and attached to a bridge by a couple, the key tossed into the water below, in declaration of their romantic commitment to each other. We don’t know where and when this custom started, although several towns and cities across Europe boast competitive claims to host the ‘first love-lock bridge’. We do know, though, that the custom gained global momentum once it emerged in Rome and Paris in the 2000s. Since then, these masses of padlocks have been emerging on bridges in locations as distant and varied as Prague and Taiwan; New York and Seoul; Melbourne and Moscow.

Love-locks in Prague. The Love-Lock Diaries.

Authorities have reacted to the custom differently. Some encourage it, declaring their support of this public expression of romance (or, as the cynic views it, harnessing the love-lock bridges as tourist attractions). Others are not quite so enthusiastic about them, anxious about the structural integrity of the bridges, with Paris being the most famous example of a city council removing their plethora of love-locks. Leeds is another: they removed the love-locks from the Centenary Bridge in October 2017, concerned that the padlocks were speeding up the rate of rust on the bridge.

This is why I was in the Leeds Council Highways and Transportation offices, on the edge of the city, armed with camera and photography scale (for more information about my work cataloguing these love-locks, see my blog The Love-Lock Diaries). This isn’t the only love-lock they have. They kept all of the ones they removed, close to 1,000 of them, laying them out neatly across a table so that the people who ‘locked their love’ onto the Centenary Bridge can come and reclaim their locks. Would people really go to the trouble of travelling to the outskirts of Leeds to reclaim a rusty, broken padlock? Well, it turns out that they would. Indeed, they have. But why?

Removed love-locks in Leeds City Council offices. The Love-Lock Diaries.

The romantic symbolism of the love-lock is obvious. They are, after all, designed to be objects of security, attachment, and steadfast unity. In being inscribed with names or initials, alongside love-hearts and infinity symbols, the padlocks become overtly linked with the couple. The act of locking them onto a permanent public structure and then disposing of the key speaks volumes about the couple’s confidence in their commitment to each other. You could argue that the symbolism of the bridge is also potent. The bridge’s purpose is to connect; it unites two separated sides. Could there be a more appropriate platform for declaring romantic attachment?

But these objects are romantic tokens even without the symbolism of the padlock and the bridge. They stand for a moment in the course of a relationship, ranging from fresh beginnings and holiday romances to the starting of families and 25th wedding anniversaries. We can’t know at what point in JAMES + LOTTIE’s relationship they locked their love to the Centenary Bridge, but we do know that this broken and rusty padlock represents that one moment where one, or both, of them stood on that bridge and stated for the world (well, Leeds) to see their love and commitment.

Love-locks on the Centenary Bridge, Leeds. The Love-Lock Diaries.

And that is why, for Valentine’s Day, I’m writing a blog post about a broken, rusty padlock being archaeologically catalogued in the Highways and Transportation offices of Leeds City Council.

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