For this, the tenth stage of our Thames journey, we travel quite a short distance – 2.3 miles along the north side – but one that takes us through the heart of London, old and new. We ended last time at Westminster Bridge. This time we journey to London Bridge, first heading north and then bending around to the east, and heading straight on. Both sides of the river are walkable along this stretch, though the south bank is best for the pedestrian, with no roads and only one diversion off the river – and an interesting one at that.
We’ll start on the south side, because that soon brings us to one of London’s best known landmarks these days, the London Eye. It was erected in 1999 to mark the Millennium and opened to the public in 2000. At the time it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, though it has been overtaken since. It is the UK’s biggest tourist attraction, which is evident when you walk along this part of the river! It’s not the only attraction in the vicinity – the old County Hall building, once the home of London’s local government, now houses the Sea Life Aquarium, Shrek’s Adventure and the London Dungeon, as well as a hotel and various restaurants. A place to pass through quickly, unless you are visiting one of these attractions. To be fair, the London Eye is not only a brilliant addition to the skyline, but is absolutely worth having a trip on. The views of London are stunning and there is something remarkable about reaching the top of the cycle, suspended in mid-air, feeling like you aren’t moving at all.
After the London Eye, you walk past Jubilee Gardens and reach Hungerford Bridge. I’ll come back to that once we’ve taken a short trip along the north bank, the Embankment. This is a Victorian construction, the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Prior to the 1850s, the Thames still lapped onto the shores of Westminster, as well as the opposite bank. Both areas were prone to flooding. The Thames was also an open sewer, and smelled so bad that during the summer of 1858, MPs considered leaving Westminster. Bazalgette was commissioned to find a solution, which was to construct a network of underground sewers in London which are still used today. The problem was essentially shifted downstream, to Beckton and Crossness out in the east. Sewage pipes were laid along the Thames shore and then built over – the Victoria Embankment. Similar schemes were applied to the south side, up to Vauxhall – the Albert Embankment – as well as in Chelsea. At the same time on the north side, the District Line tunnel from Westminster to Blackfriars was constructed. Remarkable ingenuity, from which we still benefit.
By Westminster Bridge stands the statue of Boadicea (or Boudicca) and her daughters on a chariot, ready to resist the Roman invaders no doubt. It’s the work of the Victorian artist and engineer Thomas Thorneycroft. It was placed in its present position in 1902. Despite its grandeur it’s quite easy to miss in the tourist throng around the bridge.
Just along the Embankment, past the Millennium pier, are the Battle of Britain monument and the Royal Air Force memorial, unveiled in 2005 and 1923 respectively. Across the road, in the Whitehall extension of Victoria Embankment Gardens are a number of other war memorials, commemorating the Chindit special forces who served in Burma (now Myanmar), the Korean War and more recently those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fittingly, the Ministry of Defence building looms over them.
In the next part of the gardens are a rather odd selection of statues. First there is William Tyndale, a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He translated the Bible into English and opposed Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was living in exile when he was seized in Antwerp in 1535 and imprisoned near Brussels before meeting a grisly death at the stake in 1836. Clearly a major historical figure, unlike the other two: Henry Bartle Frere, a 19th century colonial administrator, and Sir James Outram, a general in India in the same century. I’m surprised those two haven’t become part of the statue culture war yet. Still, there’s a river nearby if they need one…
The gardens run up to Northumberland Avenue. On the other of the avenue is Embankment tube station and a supporting infrastructure of shops and bars. Villiers Street takes you up to the Strand, with Charing Cross station on its left. The Strand is so-called because it used to be the shore of the river, before Bazalgette and others transformed the area. Note to people unfamiliar with the tube: there is no need to get a tube from Charing Cross to Embankment. You can walk faster.
Beyond the tube station Victoria Embankment Gardens return, with another varied collection of statues, including the Scottish poet Robert Burns, 19th century social reformer Henry Fawcett, a monument to the Imperial Camel Corps (which fought in the first world war) and Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario and hotelier who built the Savoy theatre and the adjacent Savoy hotel. It’s an appropriate location for him, as the hotel backs onto the gardens.
The name Savoy derives from Count Peter of Savoy, who was the uncle of King Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence. He was made Earl of Richmond and granted land by the river to construct a grand palace in the mid 14th century. The Palace was burnt down in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In the 16th century, at the behest of Henry VII, a hospital for the poor was constructed, but it soon gained a reputation for “loiterers, vagabonds and strumpets.” It lasted until 1702, after which part of it was used as a military prison before falling into disuse. Enter Richard D’Oyly Carte…
On the river bank is another monument, Cleopatra’s Needle, with accompanying sphinxes. The needle dates back to 1450 BC and was moved to Alexandria in 12 BC by Queen Cleopatra, to form part of a temple honouring Mark Antony. It was gifted to the British by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, in 1819, as thanks for British victories against the French in the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Alexandria (1801). The obelisk didn’t arrive in London until 1877 and almost sank in the Bay of Biscay on its journey over. It has a twin, which is in Central Park, New York. It’s a bizarre sight on the banks of the Thames, with the cars roaring by. Arguably, it would better back in Alexandria.
Monuments over, let’s double back to Hungerford Bridge, on which the railway from Charing Cross crosses over the river – first stop Waterloo station. On both sides of the railway bridge there are walkways which afford wonderful views of the river, upstream and downstream. Until I started doing some research for this piece, I’d completely forgotten that these walkways were only opened in 2002, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. There was something before that – just a narrow path on one side. The original Hungerford footbridge, designed by Brunel, opened in 1845. It was named after Hungerford Market in Charing Cross, on the site that is now the station. It was replaced by a railway bridge in 1864, to connect the new Charing Cross station with the rail network south of the river. Parts of the original suspension bridge were used in the construction of Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The rail bridge did initially have walkways on either side, but over the years one or other was closed as the rail bridge was widened and refurbished. A happy balance between trains and pedestrians now exists.
The bridge takes you from Embankment station to the South Bank, and one of the great arts and entertainment complexes to be found anywhere, a jewel in London’s crown. The 60s brutalist buildings may not be to everyone’s taste, but within they are home to music, art, drama, cinema, you name it. The Royal Festival Hall (including the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room), the Hayward Gallery, and beyond Waterloo Bridge, The National Theatre and the British Film Institute. Not to forget the skateboarders arena! The whole area along the river is pedestrianised; there are bars and stalls restaurants all around, a food market behind the Festival Hall, second hand booksellers under the bridge. A place where Londoners and its many visitors can promenade. And all the while the river rolls by, conducting its business in the background. One of my favourite parts of London? Of course it is!
One happy memory for me is from 2020, as we tentatively came out of the first lockdown. It was June. The first time I headed back to central London was to the South Bank. I took a train from Brentford to Waterloo and headed for the river. Where else would I want to be? It was still fairly quiet. I bought a beer from a stall outside the BFI and walked down to the river wall, and just took it all in. The National Theatre, Waterloo Bridge, and further downstream Blackfriars, St Paul’s and the City. The human elements slowly coming back to life; the river its usual relentless self.
The first Waterloo Bridge was designed by John Rennie, and opened in 1817 as a toll bridge. It was made from granite. Like so many of London’s bridges, it suffered from erosion and what turned out to be unsuitable design – see previous blogs! It was replaced in 1942, but not fully opened until 1945. It is the only London bridge to be damaged by bombing during the war, which is surprising. It’s a pretty functional and unexciting construction, but these days it’s nicely lit up in the evenings, with a streak of purple light. And who can forget the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset? Monet, amongst others, liked to paint the scenes here too. A different bridge, a different world; but there is something that draws you here.
Waterloo station sits just behind the South Bank. It’s the busiest station in the UK, serving the south and parts of the south-west of England. Primarily it’s a commuter station, serving the south-west suburbs of London and Surrey and Hampshire. I briefly had to use it in my early days in London, travelling in from Putney and changing onto the London & City underground line to Bank. What a depressing experience that was! Pinstripes and briefcases, all queuing in precise diagonal lines, waiting for the doors to open. Heaven forbid that anyone should break through the queue. Much tutting would ensue. This was 1981.
I took these photos in February 2019. Seen from above, we all turn into Lowry-esque figures
I love the walk beyond the National Theatre up to Blackfriars Bridge. On this side of the river, the gleaming tower that is One Blackfriars is an impressive sight, with the Oxo Tower in the foreground. But the views that take the prize are those of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City, coming ever closer. At low tide there’s a bit of beach that you can walk down to, and get even better views. There’s something exhilarating about being on a beach, with the Thames running by, surrounded by all these spectacular views.
Maybe that’s why the woman in this next photo chose such an unusual place to sit and have a look at her phone (in March 2019). Maybe she was waiting for someone. Maybe she was a friend of the guy doing the digging. Or maybe it was just the sense of freedom, and the restless sounds of the river. I painted a picture of the scene, which I called Girl with Phone. (Took an artistic decision to leave the guy out!)
Back on the north side – which it now really is, as the river is heading east – just after Waterloo Bridge, we come to Somerset House. This has had a varied existence since it was first constructed by the Duke of Somerset (Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI) in the mid-16th century. The Duke never got to see the final product, as he fell out of favour with Parliament and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552! The building came into possession of the Crown and served as a residence to Queen Elizabeth I during the reign of her half-sister (Bloody) Mary. During Stuart times, it was used by the Queen Consorts, with a brief interlude during the Civil War. In Charles II’s reign it was viewed as a centre of Catholic conspiracy. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 it fell into decline and in the mid-18th century was demolished and rebuilt by Sir William Chambers, with the intention of using it for government offices. This was its main purpose until the 1980s. It was particularly associated with the Inland Revenue (now HMRC). For a time in the 19th century it was also home to various Royal Societies, including the Royal Academy of the Arts (now in Piccadilly). The artistic connection revived following an act of Parliament in 1984 which paved the way for it to become a centre for the arts. The Courtauld Institute moved in, in 1989, bringing with it its amazing collection of Impressionist art. That remains to this day, and is free to see. It’s the equal of the collection in the National Gallery. A bit of a hidden treasure. Today Somerset House is also home to all sorts of creative organisations, hosts a popular ice rink in winter, and holds an acclaimed series of concerts in the summer.
Soon we come to Temple tube station, then a rather odd monument signifying the boundary of the City of London, and then the Temple itself. This is the home of London’s legal profession, in particular the barristers’ chambers. It’s a tranquil spot in the middle of bustling London, with Fleet Street at its northern boundary, and the Royal Courts of Justice just down the road at the end of the Strand. The area was the home of the Knights Templar in the 12th century, but by the 14th royalty had their hands on it, and the lawyers moved in. Temple Church dates back to the 12th century. The area remains largely accessible to the public, so you can wander around, though most of the buildings are private. It always seems to me like a larger version of an Oxbridge college. There’s a pattern here: you go to a top private school, then Oxbridge, and then are “called” to the Bar, take “Silk” when you become distinguished enough, and spend much of your time in Temple and the Royal Courts of Justice. Seamless. The architecture barely changes.
Blackfriars Bridge first opened in 1769, having taken nine years to build. The designer was Robert Mylne, and the style was Italianate. It was originally called William Pitt Bridge, after the Prime Minister (the Elder) but that didn’t catch on, and it took its permanent name from the Dominican monastery which once stood nearby. Of course the original didn’t stand the test of time, and it was rebuilt in the 19th century, opening in 1869. A tram line was on the bridge from 1909 to 1952. It’s a bridge I often find myself crossing, coming out of the tube station, heading for the Tate Modern, a little way downstream on the south side. Like all the bridges in this part of London, there are great views all around.
Blackfriars railway bridge is close by. It now has a Thameslink station on it. Running alongside are some red pillars. They belong to the old bridge, opened in 1884, which carried the London, Chatham and Dover Railway.
Crossing over Blackfriars Bridge, we take the steps down to the Thames Path and head along to the old Bankside power station, now the Tate Modern. Standing below the railway bridge you can frame a lovely view of St Paul’s on the other side of the river.
The indestructible cathedral – or maybe not. The current, iconic building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century, survived the German bombs in World War Two; but its predecessor, a Gothic construction, fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666, just as its predecessor, an Anglo-Saxon cathedral, was destroyed by fire in 1087. The cathedral is situated on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, and so it still holds its own against the mighty towers of the financial district. I think planning laws have also ensured that this remains the case. St Paul’s is the seat of the Bishop of London, and is the location for many nationally significant events: funerals of prominent politicians (including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher), thanksgiving services for the Queen’s major jubilees and, of course, the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. The poet John Donne was Dean of the cathedral from 1621 until his death in 1631.
I’ll come back to the City in the next instalment of this journey, but let’s continue now to the Tate Modern and the nearby Millennium Bridge. Two more icons of modern London. The Tate Modern houses one of the world’s largest collections of modern and contemporary art. It officially opened in May 2000. The Bankside power station had closed in 1981 and was at risk of being pulled down. It’s a striking building from the outside; but inside it is a marvel. The huge Turbine Hall, which occupies the central space is an awesome site, cathedral-like. It has been used over the years for some mind-boggling exhibitions. The two that stand out in my memory are Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds in 2008 and Olafur Eliasson’s extraordinary Weather Project in 2004, in which a large sun-like object radiated yellow light through the hall, reflecting off the large mirror covering the ceiling. We all lay on the floor to take it in – and see ourselves reflected in the throng. At that moment you understood why ancient civilisations worshipped the sun.
An extension was built which opened in 2016. Initially known as Switch House, it is now the Blavatnik Building, named after the Anglo-Ukrainian billionaire who contributed to the cost of the extension. As well as galleries it houses an excellent members’ café – which has sadly remained closed since lockdown restrictions were lifted – and has attracted controversy for its viewing gallery on the 10th floor, which allows views into the apartments of some of the nearby high-end residential blocks.
Of course, it’s the art that makes it such a vital part of London’s cultural riches. As well as the numerous galleries of the permanent exhibition (which is free) there are so many fantastic exhibitions, including the wonderful Cezanne show at the moment.
The Millennium footbridge is another amazing construction, though it had a wobbly start – literally. Designed by Norman Foster, it opened in June 2000, but was soon closed, as it shook when large numbers of people walked across it. Apparently we have a tendency to walk in lockstep with others and this caused the swaying. So it was the pedestrians’ fault! The bridge had to be redesigned before it was reopened in 2002. No-one calls it the wobbly bridge anymore – they are too busy marvelling at the views, which include the straight line up to St Paul’s.
Next to the Tate, we come to the Globe Theatre, once the home of William Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The original Globe was built in 1599, partly using timber from another theatre in Shoreditch – without the owner’s agreement! It burnt down in 1613 and was rebuilt the following year. It survived until 1642, when it was closed down with the outbreak of the English Civil War. It never re-opened, and tenements were built on the site. The current theatre, which was modelled on the original, was opened in 1997 and has flown the flag for Shakespeare ever since.
We pass Southwark Bridge – the current version opened in 1921 – before taking a diversion from the riverbank which leads towards Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. On the north side incidentally, you can take steps down to the river and along an alleyway to the Banker pub, which serves Fullers. Part of the pub is directly under Southwark railway bridge, and if you get a window seat you can watch the boats go by.
Borough Market has existed in one shape or form since 1014, and quite possibly earlier. In the 19th century it was one of London’s most important wholesale food markets, owing to its position near London Bridge and the docks. It fell into decline in the late 20th century, until it was revived by turning into a retail food market. Today it is thriving and is a major tourist attraction. There is a wonderful array of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and all sorts of specialities. There are numerous food and drink stalls if you fancy a snack, as well as some excellent restaurants. The smells of all the produce are wonderful. Not the cheapest of places, but the quality is high.
Southwark Cathedral is nestled between Borough Market and London Bridge. Between 1106 and 1538 it was an Augustinian priory. With the dissolution of the monasteries under our old friend Henry VIII it became a parish church, St Saviours. For centuries it was, strangely, part of the diocese of Winchester, then from 1877, Rochester. It only became a cathedral in 1905, with the creation of the diocese of Southwark. It retains a lot of its 13-15th Gothic origins, though the nave was rebuilt in the 19th century. The gardens around it are a peaceful place to take a breather from the bustle all around.
And so we reach London Bridge, at the very heart of old London, but alive with the new. The current bridge, which is not the most beautiful, opened in 1973; but there has been a bridge here at least since Roman times. The first bridge may have been constructed around 50 AD (or CE if you prefer). From that point a small settlement called Londinium sprung up. And the rest, as they say, is history. The bridge may have been destroyed in the Boudican revolt of 60 AD, but another was built. The bridge fell into disrepair with the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, but was rebuilt in the 10th century, possibly by Alfred the Great. It was destroyed again in 1014 by King Olaf of Norway, whose navy tied ropes to the bridge’s supports and pulled the whole thing down. This is thought to be the origin of the song, London Bridge is Falling Down. William the Conqueror rebuilt it after the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1136. The last wooden bridge was rebuilt under King Stephen, one of our least well-known monarchs.
King Henry II commissioned the construction of the first stone bridge in the 1160s. It wasn’t completed until 1209, but by then houses were already being built on it. This bridge, with various alterations over the centuries, lasted until 1831, and became world famous. There were houses, shops, pubs and all sorts of artisans and traders. It became one of London’s main shopping streets, and a centre of much revelry, which resulted from time to time in people falling off the bridge and drowning. The numerous arches supporting the bridge made the currents either side particularly treacherous. On the south side of the bridge there was a gatehouse and drawbridge, which was pulled up at curfew, stranding people who had visited the taverns and theatres of Southwark. They had to rely on the waterman to ferry them across the river. A gruesome tradition sprung up from the early 14th century of displaying the heads of traitors on spikes by the gatehouse. The first recorded head was that of the Scottish leader William Wallace in 1305. Other unfortunate luminaries over the years included the rebel leader Jack Cade (1450), Thomas More (1535) and Thomas Cromwell (1540). There were fires on the bridge from time to time, but by 1666 there was a firebreak that prevented the Great Fire of London spreading to Southwark.
In the late 14th century there were as many as 140 houses on the bridge. The numbers shrank as people started building up – some buildings reached six stories. In the 18th century there were a number of fires. Houses were rebuilt, but quickly began to subside; eventually an act of parliament allowed all the properties to be demolished and the bridge’s structures improved. A temporary wooden bridge was constructed, but that was destroyed by fire in 1758, months after it opened! Supporting the stone bridge, a new “Great Arch” was created, but it weakened the structure, and hastened the bridge’s demise. It was replaced by another stone bridge, just upstream. Designed by John Rennie, it opened in 1831. By the late 19th century the bridge was the most congested place in London. It was also slowly sinking, the east side more than the west. It had to be replaced. In a bizarre twist, the bridge was purchased by an American entrepreneur, Robert P McCulloch, in 1968, and eventually reassembled in Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Its replacement officially opened in 1973 and remains to this day.
London Bridge in the 20th century became associated with the drudgery of commuters, memorably in the lines from TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many…
Tragically, death, real rather than metaphorical, has returned to London Bridge twice this century, with the terrorist attacks in 2017 and 2019. Westminster Bridge too, was the scene of killings in 2017. We are reminded of this each time we cross by the concrete blocks which now separate the roads from the paths. Let us not forget the suffering of the victims and their friends and families as we also revel in the views from the bridge – upstream the Tate Modern and St Paul’s amongst others; downstream the Shard, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge; to north the City. We’ll explore the City, the Shard and further downstream in the next instalment of this Thames Journey.
The Shard has been popping up in quite a few of the photos; here are a couple more from either end of London Bridge to whet your appetite for what comes next.
London and the Thames are epic!
One of the many things I like about these posts of yours, John, is the combination of information and vicarious experience that makes me feel like I’m almost there walking and commuting. I have saved this particular post for my visit later this year (I hope it happens). Thank you!
A guided tour will be available!