Take the city air with the great London bridges
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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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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