The River Thames has over 200 river crossings, comprising bridges, railway tunnels, service tunnels and one foot tunnel.
This isn’t really surprising as the Thames runs for over two hundred miles and threads through central London, but it’s the bridges and tunnels of central London that we will focus on.
With one exception, the Dartford Crossing lies to the east of London and forms part of the M25 orbital motorway. The Dartford Crossing comprises two road tunnels (completed 1963 and 1980) and the ‘Queen Elizabeth II Bridge” – the tallest of London’s bridges (completed 1991).
The bridge carries the M25 traffic north-south while two tunnel bores carry traffic south-north; there are toll charges for both the bridge and the tunnels, but these are reduced after 10pm each evening.
Around 150,000 vehicles use the Dartford crossing each day.
The easternmost, and most recognisable of London’s bridges is Tower Bridge, opened in 1894 with two towers, an elevated walkway that can be hired for private functions and the road deck that can be raised to allow shipping through. The bridge is still raised around a thousand times a year.
The area west of Tower Bridge as far as London Bridge was known as ‘the pool of London’ and the refurbished wharves on the south side of the river in this stretch are some indication of the extent of trade that was conducted here until the mid twentieth century.
London Bridge is the oldest of London’s bridges, and one of the newest. There has been a bridge at this site (or thereabouts) since around 55AD during the roman occupation of Britain; the current bridge was completed in 1973, its predecessor famously being transported to Lake Havasu City in Arizona.
Medieval bridges on this site included houses and shops, and the narrow water flows caused the Thames to flow more slowly, this (along with unusually cold weather) is thought to have contributed to the Thames freezing over. The Thames actually froze on 26 occasions and famously in 1683 and 1814 when the ice was thick enough to hold ‘frost fairs’ on the frozen river.
The next river crossing is Cannon Street railway bridge,which carries rail passengers from Cannon Street to South London and Kent. The bridge was first opened in 1866. The next road/pedestrian crossing is Southwark Bridge.
The present Southwark Bridge was completed in 1921, but its predecessor, completed in 1819 became famous through frequent references by Charles Dickens. The 1819 bridge was constructed from cast iron and as such was known as the ‘iron bridge’.
There is a frieze in a pedestrian subway on the south side of the bridge depicting the Frost Fairs mentioned previously.
As its name suggests, the ‘Millennium Bridge’ was constructed to celebrate the new millennium, it was opened in the year 2000 and quickly became known as ‘the wobbly bridge’. The large numbers of pedestrians caused a feedback/resonance and the bridge had to be closed for additional dampeners to be fitted. The resulting bridge is perhaps slightly less dramatic that the original design, but it’s very popular with tourists, providing a footbridge link between St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London with the South Bank and the Tate Modern art gallery.
The Millennium Bridge features in the 2009 Harry Potter film – ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’.
The next crossing is Blackfriars Railway Bridge which carries railway traffic, closely followed by Blackfrairs Bridge.
The current Blackfriars Bridge was completed in 1869 replacing an earlier (1769) structure. The name is taken from the Dominican Friars who moved their priory into the area on the nerth bank, close to Ludgate Hill in 1276.
Blackfriars Bridge is perhaps best known for being the place (again on the northern bank) where the body of the Italian banker Roberto Calvi was found hanged in 1982.
In a subsequent next article I will cover the next bridges west, from Hungerford Bridge to Albert Bridge.