The great bridges that straddle the Thames River in London have much to tell about the history and culture of the Capital City of Great Britain. There are fourteen of them that can be traversed on foot or bicycle stretching from Tower Bridge in the east to Putney Bridge at the western end. A tour of them will provide a great day of exercise and fresh air and need hardly cost anything. Use one of the the very inexpensive ‘Boris Bikes’ that can be hired for a mere two pounds a day with your credit card. You can drop it off easily enough at the end of your trip. Take a tour of the bridges and experience right up front the energy of a very cosmopolitan London.
The London bridges seem to divide the city into sections of quite distinct genre, activity and culture. The lifestyle and urbanity is also quite distinct on opposite river banks in each quarter or segment of the Thames River. To visit the bridges in this way gives a sophisticated insight into the constantly changing capital. The distance along the bridge route is not too taxing. Take it on a bicycle or foot for a day full of London experience. You can use the Thames Path on the South Bank for most of the way. There is no traffic and cycling is permitted along many stretches of it.
Start off at the eastern end at Tower Bridge. This bridge was constructed in 1894 and was designed to permit access for tall ships to port facilities a little further to the west. Tower Bridge seems to symbolise London with a very over bearing presence. Next to it sits London Bridge. The current version was opened to pedestrians and traffic in 1973. It replaced a previous structure that was slowly sinking due to the weight of modern traversing traffic. The original bridge was sold to the Americans for around a million pounds. It was re-erected piece by piece and now resides at Lake Havasu in Arizona. Popular rumour has it that the Americans believed they were actually buying Tower Bridge as the two are often confused. The London authorities are said to be still amused by their accidental trickery to this day.
On the north bank of the Thames by these bridges rests the ancient Tower of London housing the crown jewels. On the south bank lies a part of the much preserved Dickensian London. The old atmosphere is still very detectable but is now home to many fashionable shops and restaurants. There is much contemporary architecture along this section of the bank. The distinctive, glassy offices of the Mayor of London figure prominently.
Southwark Bridge is a little further on westwards. The original structure was constructed with a cast iron span of 240 feet in length. This was the largest such piece of engineering anywhere in the world at the time. The bridge was re-built in 1921 to contain the increasing levels of traffic.
On the North Bank by Southwark is one of the two high rise financial centres of London. On the South Bank, stretching for about a mile is the very less formal area of theatre, contemporary art galleries and skate board parks. There is much street vending and entertainment as well. The London Eye is along here too and the street atmosphere is always very colourful, alive and vibrant. Contented cosmopolitan life exists on the South Bank in its purest form.
Move on further west from Southwark Bridge and find the very contemporary Millennium foot bridge. This bridge opened in June 2000 but swayed very detectably as large groups of people traversed it. It was quickly closed and had to be fitted with heavyweight hydraulic damping machinery to stabilize it that took about two years to fit. Londoners christened it the ‘wobbly bridge’ and that name has stuck.
The Millennium Bridge links St. Pauls Cathedral on the North Bank to the Tate Modern Gallery and Globe Theatre on the south bank. It is used extensively by visitors on a daily basis providing one of the most stunning views of central London. The metallic damping machinery evident along the entire length has assumed a latter day, artistic symbolism all of its own.
Just a few hundred yards from the ‘wobbly bridge’ on the South Bank reposes the Founders Arms pub. Stop off here and take some lunch and lubrication. It is just like a real English country pub selling food and real ales right under the glare of St. Pauls Cathedral. It provides a truly enticing view as you take a break from your tour and the prices are very reasonable. Lunch at the Founders Arms will be one of those great London experiences to savour with all your senses.
Proceed further along and you will come to the Blackfriars Bridges. The first is a railway bridge where the overlying solar panels proudly claim to provide all of the electrical power required for passing trains. This bridge sits right next to the pedestrian footbridge that serves the OXO Tower and the associated bars and street restaurants on the South Bank.
On the North Bank, just beyond Blackfriars Bridge, you can visit the Victoria Embankment. There are a number of medium sized boats moored along here (no longer river worthy) that have been converted into fashionable watering holes and restaurants.
Waterloo Bridge breaks the action next. It sits on a bend in the river and provides some of the finest views of London. Survey the London Eye, The City, the South Bank and Canary Wharf. In earlier days, Waterloo Bridge held the morbid reputation of being the spot for a number of suicide attempts, many of them sadly, successful over the years.
Further along you will come to Westminster Bridge then Lambeth Bridge. They link the Houses of Parliament on the north side to the more austere Lambeth Palace on the south side. Westminster Bridge is painted green to match the leather seats in the House of Commons. Lambeth Bridge is painted predominately red to match the leather in the House of Lords.
A little further to the west you will come to Vauxhall Bridge. This links the affluent and residential Pimlico on the north to the interestingly designed MI5 headquarters building on the south. A tragic air crash occurred just by the end of the bridge on the south side in early 2013. A helicopter struck a tower block under construction at St. George’s Wharf, very close by, in foggy weather conditions. Two people were killed. Vauxhall Bridge also serves ‘Riverside Walk’ containing some of the most futuristic and expensive tower block properties in London.
Chelsea Bridge is next. This is a very grand and wide suspension bridge close to the Lister hospital. It serves Battersea Park and is a busy traffic thoroughfare. London views and styles on the north bank become more rural with many grand country style houses. On the south bank there is yet another string of ultra modern, glossy and expensive flat accommodation.
A little further west along the route is Albert Bridge. It is of a very fancy, finely engineered suspension design. Many river craft of various designs are moored under its shadow. The bridge lies within a very genteel, almost village like province of affluent, middle class London. It provides a breather from the hectic city life further east.
Battersea Bridge and Wandsworth Bridge traverse the Thames even further west. Wandsworth Bridge is un-remarkable but does provide access to the Battersea Heliport. Anybody interested in aviation will be fascinated to observe the most advanced helicopters in the world routinely landing and taking off from a landing stage built of well worn wooden pillars hammered into the river bed close by.
Putney Bridge comes last of all. This is where the Oxford and Cambridge University boat race starts each year. The race moves westwards to the finish line at Mortlake, around four miles away. The London landscape on both sides of the river has changed once more into a very genial and doubtless affluent scene. It is a little like Kent and Sussex yet the brasher views of London life can still be seen bustling away far out to the east.
A tour of the great London Bridges does provide a splendid portrait of the ever changing busy London style that goes on every day. Do it on foot or on a bike. The experience will be always uplifting and perhaps sometimes a little inspiring.
If you use a bike, take care in the London traffic. Drivers in the City have learned to share the roads with cyclists but use a fluorescent jacket and cycle helmet. Don’t pass vehicles on the inside and stop at the traffic lights. If you have used a ‘Boris Bike’, you can secure it close by to Putney Bridge and jump on the underground train next door to get back to your starting point.
I did the ‘bridges’ recently on foot. It was a wonderful early spring day and took me all afternoon. It was a special experience and I was reminded once again about the diversity and ever changing life in London. Britain is so fortunate to have such a well evolved, matured and sophisticated capital city.