As a city divided by the river that flows through it, London is a city of bridges. Connecting the banks of the Thames and allowing people and goods to flow from north to south has been a lifeline in the city for hundreds of years, and the development of new bridges has been the cause for much celebration through the years as they opened another link between one bank and another.
Each of London’s bridges has its own unique character and history of its role in the development of the city down the ages. From the very first crossing to the most modern, each has its own story to tell.
The first Thames crossing
It should come as no surprise from its name that the first bridge to cross the Thames is London Bridge. It’s believed that the first bridge stood on the site of the existing bridge in 50AD, erected by the Romans as a pontoon bridge to give rapid access across the then village-like London to the important Kentish ports.
Not the most glamorous of the bridges in London, this bridge has been refurbished through the years and has been rebuilt four times during its lifetime. The most recent renovation in the 1970s brought a simple design to the site and since its completion London Bridge has played a key role in a number of important celebrations in the city including on Remembrance Day 2004, marking 90 years since the First World War.
Is it a bridge? Or a gate?
Probably the most interesting of the London bridges is Tower Bridge, which has become an iconic symbol of the city and has become the star of stage and screen in many films and TV shows.
The bridge has the most dramatic architecture and has two great towers that give the bridge its name, and which give stability to the mighty structure. Between the two towers is what is known as a bascule bridge. In simple terms, the bridge splits in the middle and the two sides can be hauled open by massive operating machinery housed inside the towers. Through the years, this has enabled the passage of large ships up and down the Thames. Although this is a relatively rare occurrence these days, particularly since the road over the bridge carries a significant amount of traffic, but on ceremonial occasions as part of river pageants such as that held for the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2012.
The thoroughly modern bridge
The most modern addition to the bridges across the Thames is Millennium Bridge, opened to mark the beginning of the 21st century. A purely pedestrian crossing, the Millennium Bridge was the subject of criticism and controversy when it first opened in 2000. The participants in the charity walk that christened the bridge on its official opening found the bridge bounced disconcertingly beneath them as they crossed the water, leading to its closure for two years to enable engineering work to stabilise the structure.
Reopened in 2002, the Millennium Bridge provides a pedestrian link to Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern gallery and is considerably less wobbly since the installation of movement dampers were installed at either end of its length.
The history of London can be told through its bridges and there are plenty of stories the many crossings along the central London stretch of the Thames can tell about the growth and development of the city. Whether you immerse yourself in their stories or just enjoy the view, there’s no doubt that London’s bridges add something to the capital’s unique character.