We investigate the history and trivia of London’s iconic bridges – London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Millenium Bridge and the bridges of the future.
The Thames is the vital artery of London. The greatness of our capital owes much to its murky current. For centuries the Thames made London defendable in times of military conflict and navigable for trade routes to the city and beyond. The construction of its many bridges has been driven by trade and wealth creation, but it has also provided London with some of its most iconic and romantic landmarks. Let’s take a look at some of the key constructions and top trivia.
The Thames is the most-bridged river of any major city in the world, with eighteen road bridges alongside the twelve other rail and footbridges. But it was not always so – for more than 1500 years, from 80AD until 1729, there was only one crossing, London Bridge. More than ten bridges have come and gone in this spot, and the first was created almost two thousand years ago by the Romans. This early crossing connected the settlement of Southwark with a large town that would become London. Many structures took its place, some pulled down by Saxons, others burned, still more taken down voluntarily to build better, stronger bridges. It is no surprise that a nursery rhyme commemorates this endless cycle of destruction and construction – London Bridge has fallen down time and again.
But London Bridge has also known greatness. In 1209 the first stone bridge was constructed in this spot, which lasted over six hundred years. By the Elizabethan times it had a chapel and a drawbridges as well as many shops and houses, whose owners paid rent to maintain the bridge. Knights jousted along its length and watermen braved the raging torrents created around its piers. In the late 17th century there were frost fairs when the Thames iced over (can you imagine?), with revelers celebrating and dining across the frozen surface.
Perhaps the most famous event in London Bridge’s history was its purchase in 1968. The bridge (at this point a construction from 1824 by Sir John Rennie) could no longer support the weight of increased traffic, so the government put it up for sale. It was bought by American entrepreneur Robert McCulloch and relocated to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it still stands today, presumably enjoying the sunshine.
Why was there only one bridge in London for so long? The answer is complicated; taking in politics, ferryman unions, trade routes and ship heights. The lobby to build a second bridge at Fulham was staunchly opposed in parliament until they gained the powerful support of one Robert Walpole. Walpole was the adviser to King George I, who spoke no English, and was one of the country’s most powerful men. The evening that Walpole was left stranded in a boat by drunken Fulham ferrymen may have been the most decisive event in British bridge history. Within decades new constructions spanned the Thames from Tower Hamlets to Putney.
The most visually iconic bridge that followed was undoubtedly Tower Bridge. Opened in 1894, it was the largest construction of its kind at the time. It’s still one of the capital’s most arresting landmarks. Five rings hung from it to mark the Olympics, while many tourists mistake it for London Bridge, pairing the famous name with the famous sight.
Even this great monument has known bizarre events. In 1952 it began to open while the double-decker bus number 78 was crossing. The driver made a split-second decision to accelerate, clearing a 3ft gap to drop 6ft onto the north side. No one was seriously harmed, and he was awarded £10 by the city for his bravery. More recently in 1999 a Freeman drove a flock of two sheep across the bridge, exercising an ancient permission to make a statement about the eroding rights of elder citizens. No recent troubles have been reported, and the towers now serve as an exhibition where you can walk along the high walkway. If you hire out the historic Sailing Barge Will with its tall sail, you can even open Tower Bridge as you pass beneath.
The Thames’ newest iconic bridge is the Millenium Bridge, opened in June 2000 and famous for the lovely vista of St Paul’s Cathedral from the Tate side. Its striking suspension cables aren’t for decoration – they pull with a force of 2000 tons against the piers, and could theoretically support 5000 people on the bridge at a time (if they’d fit). Yet the bridge wasn’t always known for being structurally sound – on the day it opened it was observed to wobble as people crossed. It was then closed for two years to be strengthened. It was later realized that the reason for the wobbling was a little-researched phenomenon where humans adjust their steps to accommodate a moving surface. If hundreds do this at once, it will start to sway dramatically.
Those are some of the most iconic bridges London has to offer, but what about the icons of tomorrow? There are already a few striking modern bridges secreted away on the capital’s canals, such as the Rolling Bridge of Paddington Basin and the Merchant Square Footbridge, which opens out five splayed blades like a Japanese fan. Not forgetting the Garden Bridge, an idea of actress Joanna Lumley’s from 1998 that has proved controversial. New mayor Sadiq Khan has been investigating the proposal and given it the OK, so we might soon have a new botanical bridge to add to London’s iconic skyline.
If you’d like to learn more about London’s striking modern architecture, check out our Modern Architecture Tour.