London Bridges

The River Thames has been a vital part of London since its beginnings as a Roman fort almost two thousand years ago. The buildings and monuments which cluster along its banks as it snakes its way down to the sea trace the city’s growth and mark the chapters of its history. So too, do the bridges which span it.

London Bridge is the city’s oldest, dating back 2000 years to Roman times. 1000 years later, the invading Vikings, led by King Olaf, stormed the bridge to attack the settlement. The then Londoners fought to defend it until they were thrown into the river and drowned. In a final blow, the victorious Vikings torched the bridge which gave rise to the famous nursery rhyme “London Bridge is burning down”. Since then the bridge has been rebuilt many times. In 1968, when it was up for renewal, an American developer bought the old version, shipped it out stone by stone and reconstructed it in Arizona. Today London Bridge, although architecturally somewhat plain and unremarkable, is one of the city’s busiest and most important.

Westminster Bridge, opened in 1750, was the first link between Westminster and the South Bank. It was rebuilt in 1862 in the same style as the Houses of Parliament and painted green to match the benches in the House of Commons.

Old Blackfriars Bridge illustrated in tiles
Blackfriars Bridge, Travelstripe

Built in 1769, Blackfriars Bridge takes its name from the Black Friars, the black-robed order of monks whose monastery sat nearby, on the north bank of the Thames, during the Middle Ages. The original bridge was demolished and rebuilt a century later but tile pictures of the first bridge remain in the passage which runs beneath it on the south bank.

The first Hungerford Bridge, was a small foot bridge, built 200 years ago to allow the people of Lambeth on the south bank access to the north-side Hungerford food market, which was named after the family whose mansion was originally located there. The foot bridge became a railway bridge when Charing Cross Station was built on the market site. The two Golden Jubilee foot bridges which flank the railway bridge were added to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

Construction began on Waterloo Bridge in 1811. Originally it was to be named Strand Bridge as it connected the south bank with The Strand. However by the time it was completed in 1817, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and it was the Bridge was named to mark his victory.

The first Southwark Bridge was designed by John Rennie and built in 1819. The present arch traffic bridge, completed in 1921, is the work of George Basil Mott. It is known as the Car Park Bridge because of the tourist coaches which wait there for their sightseeing passengers. Below the bridge are the original steps and mooring sites, used by the waterman of old, who ferried passengers across the river

Tower Bridge, which takes its name from nearby Tower of London, is a London icon and possibly the world’s best known bridge. Although it fits the style of the nearby Tower which dates back to the time of William the Conqueror, it was not built until the late 19th century, when increasing traffic in booming city created an urgent need for a new crossing lower downriver. The design was Horace Jones, the City Architect’s winning entry in an 1884 City Council competition. The bascules, or leaves, which can be raised to allow ships to pass on the river below, were the brainchild of engineer John Wolfe Barry.

Millenium Bridge which runs between the Tate Modern Art Gallery is a suspension foot bridge, carefully designed and constructed with cables running along its sides rather than above it, so that it is low enough to allow a view of St Pauls’ Cathedral, yet high enough to allow ships to pass underneath. It was built, of course, to mark the new millennium.

It is a picturesque, fascinating and not too taxing walk along the Thames bridges from Westminster passing under, or if you like over, Hungerford/Jubillee, Waterloo, Blackfriars, Millenium, Southwark, London and finally Tower. There are plenty of pleasant places to rest and catch the breath, lots of lovely cafes and quite a few pubs with spectacular views of the bridges and the river too.

 

A cruise on the Thames

‘There’s nothing, simply nothing, like messing around in boats’

Rat, Wind in the Willows.

If, like Ratty, you like messing around in boats, then London’s Thames River cruise on the Lady Margaret, definitely isn’t for you. There’s absolutely no messing about with this boat. It makes a first business-like beeline from Westminster Bridge to Festival Hall where it loads more passengers, then another to St Katherine’s pier at the Tower of London, dropping off visitors to the Tower and picking up people who have already been, before steaming back up-river to the home landing.

A view from the Thames
A view from the Thames

.I’d resisted the whole river-cruise idea, strongly. I didn’t fancy being crushed among several hundred other tourists in the stuffy centre of row upon row chairs in the bowels of a rumbling launch. But I caved in the face of that old “can’t visit London without a cruise on the Thames!” argument. Oddly enough, after watching other craft ply the tide, day after day, laden to the gunnels with people, I found myself one of only half-a dozen people on the Lady M’s outward journey and only a handful more on her return. This was probably because on that particular Sunday, the rain that had flooded the Midlands swept down and drove most Londoners indoors.

So we sat in the front row seats and looked out over the bow on a spectacular Thames vista, uninterrupted only by rivulets of rain.  Somewhere from on high a disembodied David Beckham voice pointed out the landmarks and described them with droll, dry, deadpan British wit as we passed – the London Eye (world’s largest bicycle wheel) The Tate Modern Art Gallery (presently showing a great exhibition of scrunched up newspaper – a must-see for the whole family) the Oxo factory (0s and Xs clock to cheat the advertising ban of the time) the million and one windows of the HSBC building (designed by and headquarters of a pair of Italian window cleaners) Traitor’s gate (where traitors, like Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, entered the Tower from the river to lose their heads) and the bridges – Tower, London, Millenium, Waterloo, Jubilee and finally Westminster.

The trip was too much too short and far too expensive. But still, there is something to be said for getting out among the boats and barges on the Thames, even if it was too cold and too wet to brave the top deck and feel the sting of the wind and the spray. London looks different from the Thames.