London Bridges Are Going Up
There’s a new free exhibition devoted to London’s bridges at the Museum of London Docklands. Here’s what I’ve learned. For 1,700 years there was only one bridge over the Thames, roughly where London Bridge is today, virtually dating back to the birth of Christ (there was also a prehistoric one around Vauxhall, but no sign of it remains).
Westminster Bridge was the second, in 1750, followed by Blackfriars Bridge in 1869. Vauxhall Bridge has eight huge statues beneath it (don’t try leaning over the side to see them as I did; I nearly fell in). Likewise, Blackfriars Bridge has seabirds on the East side, freshwater birds on the west to represent the boundary between salt water and fresh in the river.
Lambeth and Westminster bridges are painted red and green to reflect the colours of the seats in the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
London Bridge had seventeen arches, which turned its waters into rapids where many water-taxis and their passengers were lost. It also allowed the Thames to freeze over for Frost fairs. The latest unusual feature on a bridge is the Blackfriars station. It’s the largest solar-powered bridge in the world and the platforms span the waters.
The ‘Blade of Light’ (aka ‘Wobbly) Millennium bridge to St Paul’s went from pariah to much-loved status overnight, and has recently started succumbing to the Curse of Love-Locks. Usually bridges across the River Thames require an Act of Parliament, but this one was granted by the Port of London Authority to speed things up. It’s suspended, but from below to reduce the height, which is why it’s a bit vertigo-inducing; there’s nothing in the sky anchoring your view.
As you head up toward the Thames source, the bridges seem to get more frail, with Hammersmith virtually on life-support, being endlessly repaired. Next to Hammersmith Bridge is the block of purpose-built turreted apartments where they filmed ‘Theatre Of Blood’. And Albert Bridge is the one most featured in romantic films because it was usually lit up with old-fashioned lightbulbs (they’re LEDs now). It has always been structurally weak and still has a sign about soldiers having to break step when marching over it.
The oddest bridge is Hungerford Bridge because it’s actually two bridges in one, so you have to select which view you’d like before boarding it, and its suspension cables lean outwards on either side. It was painted (i.e. in a painting – he didn’t paint the bridge) by Claude Monet, and the other (new) side is now called Golden Jubilee Bridge. Supposedly there are still unexploded WWII bombs in the Thames mud underneath it.
The crosswalk of Tower Bridge is open to the public these days – the last time I went up it, the plexiglass windows were so scratched that you couldn’t see out. Bit of a fail there, so I hope they’ve been changed now.
Next Boris Johnson is preparing to chuck more money into the river with a massive garden bridge, as if having 30 bridges over the Thames isn’t enough. I’m sure it will be lovely. For the last few years private developers were allowed to seal off much of the Thames’s North-side access, but that’s gradually changing. The idea is to do a Southbank on the North bank, so to speak – it doesn’t get evening sunlight but the views are excellent.