If one counts footbridges (and certainly, one should), more than 100 bridges span the River Thames from beginning to end. Tower Bridge, Millennium Bridge and London Bridge, are widely recognized around the world. London’s bridges enable trains, cars, and pedestrians to cross quickly over the River Thames rush hour permitting. While some are celebrated in nursery rhymes or captured as backdrops in travelers’ photographs, each London bridge has a unique history.
Let’s take a brief look at several of London’s bridges.
A London Bridge has existed in more or less the same spot for almost 2,000 years. And just as the nursery rhyme explains, it kept falling down. The Romans built the first bridge shortly after they set up camp in London in 46 AD. Constructed out of wood, early versions of London Bridge were susceptible to fire, storms, and occasional invading armies.
The first stone bridge was completed after 33 years of construction in 1209. King John was on the throne, and he permitted houses and shops as well as St. Thomas à Becket Chapel to be built on the span. A drawbridge permitted maritime passage. To secure the bridge at night, a gate was installed at both ends. It was from the southern gatehouse that the severed heads of traitors were displayed for macabre enjoyment and royal warning. William Wallace and Sir Thomas More were among the traitors so honored.
The stone bridge lasted over 600 years and was finally put out of commission in 1831. Its replacement was not so durable (foundation problems caused it to sink over the years), and that London Bridge was sold to American Robert McCulloch, who had it taken down and then reconstructed in Lake Havasu, Arizona, in the United States where the bridge has been a successful tourist attraction since its opening in 1971.
The current London Bridge was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. It accommodates both vehicles and pedestrians.
This bridge is so popular that some people think that it is actually London Bridge. Perhaps the most-photographed of all of London’s bridges, Tower Bridge is comparatively young—it went into service in June 1894. A busy port and docks east of London Bridge necessitated another span across the Thames, but it would take years of discussion, an open design competition, and eight years of construction to make Tower Bridge a reality.
Tower Bridge is a bascule (the word means see-saw or rocker in French) bridge; the engineering design enables the bridge to be quickly raised to accommodate the passage of ships below. The Tower Bridge Exhibition (admission is charged) lets visitors see the original engine rooms; the exhibition uses photos, drawings, movies, and animatronics figures to describe the project’s history and engineering.
Visitors can walk across the high walkways and enjoy the magnificent views—remember to take your camera. It is the bridges proximity to the Tower of London that gives it its name, though you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that the twin tower design was responsible for the moniker.
London’s pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge—linking St. Paul’s Cathedral to Tate Modern, Bankside—opened to great fanfare in June 2000. The steel suspension bridge was closed just days later. The problem—it wobbled. The designers had not allowed for the effect of large numbers of people walking across the span at the same time. So all the officials had to do was fork out a few million more pounds and spend almost two years correcting the mistake, and violà, London has one of its newest and most contemporary bridges.
Westminster Bridge connects Westminster and Lambeth. Made of wrought iron, the current bridge was opened in 1862 (it replaced a notoriously wobbly and dangerous overpass that opened in 1750) and is London’s oldest bridge. Open to both vehicles and pedestrians, the bridge matches some of the Gothic detailing of the nearby Houses of Parliament. Westminster Bridge is predominantly green to match the color used in the House of Commons.
The Hungerford Bridge is actually one railway bridge sandwiched between two pedestrian walkways. The first bridge on the site was a suspension foot bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, he accomplished amazing engineering projects).
Named for the market that then existed on the north bank, that first bridge opened in 1845. Less than 20 years later, the footbridge was replaced with a cantilevered railway bridge, although railroad operators were still required to accommodate pedestrian crossings. The new pedestrian spans are often still called the “Hungerford Footbridges;” the attractive new walkways were completed in 2002. Their formal name, the Golden Jubilee Bridges, honors that milestone of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
The first bridge on this site opened in 1817. The name comes from the Battle of Waterloo, an important British victory during the Napoleonic Wars. The current bridge was completed in 1945 and is made of Portland stone. Both a vehicle and foot bridge, Waterloo Bridge leads to the many art and entertainment establishments along the South Bank.
The first bridge at this spot along the river opened in 1769,
It was meant to be named after William Pitt, but instead gained its moniker from a 13th Century Dominican monastery(long-since dissolved) that had provided a name for a section of London near Ludgate Hill. The current Blackfriars Bridge was opened by Queen Victoria in 1869; it is both a vehicle and pedestrian bridge.
Blackfrairs Rail Bridge
The first bridge, built in 1864, was not strong enough to support newer trains, and so a new bridge was constructed and opened in 1886. What is now known as Blackfriars Rail Bridge was originally called St. Paul’s Railway Bridge, but in 1937 when St. Paul’s station changed its name to Blackfriars, the bridge quickly followed suit.
First opened in 1819, the original Southwark Bridge was demolished in 1913. World War I delayed the completion of its replacement until 1921. If you look under the bridge on the south side of the river, stone steps are visible. This was a “taxi stand” for the watermen who would transport people in their boats to the other side of the River Thames.
Cannon Street Rail Bridge
Another London bridge that does not go by its proper name (it’s the Alexandra Bridge, named after the wife of King Edward VII) is Cannon Street Rail Bridge, which was opened in 1866. Subsequent renovations and widening of the span over the next hundred plus years have striped away most of its earlier ornamentation. The Cannon Street Station—at the end of the bridge—is the terminal station of the National Rail.
by Katie Calvert