Bridges across the Thames

In our age, there are many bridges crossing the Thames as the river winds its way through the Greater London area. Once upon a time, when only one bridge, London Bridge, connected the city on the northern bank with independent boroughs on the southern bank now called Southwark, river traffic was handled by watermen and lightermen, whereby watermen were in charge of passenger traffic and lightermen lightered cargo to shore.

Evidence of the importance of watermen and lightermen for the City of London can be deduced from statistics and acts of Parliament over the centuries. Charges for cargo services were already regulated in 1514 and in 1555 Parliament appointed “Rulers of all Watermen and Wherrymen”, thus effectively founding what we would call a river worker’s trade union. In John Stow’s famous 1598 Survey of London, 40 000 men earning their livelihood on the river were noted. A veritable flotilla of wherries crisscrossed the river with their passengers. Wherries were clinker-built row boats with a long bow extension over which passengers could alight dry-shod before landing stages were installed along the muddy river banks. These Elizabethan wherries worked very much like modern day water taxis, carrying up to five passengers per crossing.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, more than 2000 wherries alone carried pleasure seekers between the city and the unregulated theater district on Bankside, where The Rose and The Globe drew audiences, as did bear baiting rings and many taverns & brothels beckoned customers. During the Great Plague of London, entertaining venues like theaters and public houses were supposed to stay closed. The mighty Rulers of Watermen weren’t about to lose their wherrymen’s income to a mere epidemic and interceded. The city knuckled under and kept the venues open. As late as 1820 there were still 3000 wherries ferrying passengers across the river Thames.

Since this is supposed to be a report on Thames’ bridges, though, I better get off the subject of wherrymen and focus on fixed structures. You are invited to follow our footsteps across two very different bridges, each a London landmark and easily recognizable as a symbol of the city.

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The newest of all London bridges is the Millennium London Footbridge, a suspension bridge for pedestrians connecting the City of London with Southwark, or more precisely, the Thames Embankment at St. Paul’s Cathedral with Bankside at the Tate Modern. The “Blade of Light” bridge designed by the famous architectural studio Foster* & Partners was created in tribute to the new millennium. Opening in June of 2000, the elegant Millennium Bridge had a rather difficult birth. Renamed “Wobbly Bridge” by the public, it had to be closed for two (2) years of re-engineering – only two days after its grand opening! Details to be found in the link above.

* Among many exceptional steel-and-glass buildings across the globe, Norman Foster also designed the Millau Viaduct.

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Looking N toward the Thames Embankment
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Looking SSE toward Bankside with the Shard, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the Tate Modern
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View downriver

Quite quickly we reached the northern terminus of Old Wobbly in full view of Wren’s cathedral situated on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London.

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Coincidentally we saw this mother with her two children in the subway again – at least an hour later and nowhere near St. Paul’s!!

From the contemporary Millennium Bridge, we proceeded to the slightly older, quaintly neo-gothic, and definitely best known of all London bridges, the Tower Bridge, which opened in 1886. On route, we saw an interesting medley of the new and the old cheek to jowl crowding the city center.

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The Tower Bridge spans the river Thames right next door to the last vestige of the Middle Ages in the city, the Tower of London castle complex. When first approaching what is officially called “Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London”, I was aghast at the carnival-like proliferation of fast food and souvenir shops blocking the view of this solemn old edifice.

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But then I had to smile at the scene, considering how fitting it really was. When the castle was still home to the monarch and a working defense installation, merchants, tradesmen and artisans, working girls and buskers, chickens and goats would have crowded around its protective walls, just as tourists and all types of tradespeople are doing today.

The UNESCO World Heritage people, on the other hand, have a major beef with the way the UK treats some of its heritage sites. They’re accusing the government of failure to protect their national heritage from ever-encroaching modern development. In London, the Tower of London castle and Westminster Palace are dwarfed, squeezed from view and overshadowed by an alarming number of highrises. Since the early 2000s, the UN has issued warnings to the British government that it will put these listed historical sites on its endangered heritage list alongside those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Congo. Very embarrassing indeed!

Below I put together a few images to illustrate the UNESCO point regarding the London Tower castle

The “Shard” on Bankside is a particularly sharp thorn in UNESCO’s side. In 2008 they even threatened to remove the London Tower from their list of heritage sites unless the project was stopped. The heritage inspectors consider the glass pyramid an abomination looming over the Medieval fortress on the opposite bank. Apparently, nothing came of the threat since the Shard was built and the Tower’s heritage status is intact. The Shard blends beautifully with the sky, as the glass façade changes hues in concert with passing clouds. I think it’s gorgeous. I quite enjoy the juxtaposition of treasured historical buildings against exciting contemporary design. If those modern buildings endure, they will soon enough become candidates for preservation as witnesses to our own era. It’s all part of humanity’s ever-evolving civilization.

We walked around the northern perimeter of the castle, stopped for a drink at the Strada at St. Catharine Dock before queuing for tickets to experience the wonders of Tower Bridge.

While waiting for our turn at the elevator to ascend to the walkways between the towers, I happened to be standing next to a narrow window looking out toward the river. That’s when I had a chance to observe the bascules rising to allow the sailing barge “Thistle” to pass through the bridge. The Thistle is quite unique as Thames sailing barges go. With her 1895 launch date, she’s the oldest surviving iron barge on the Thames and she’s the only barge having been build in Scotland. Her hold could carry up to 200 tons of cargo in past days, but now it’s outfitted as a lounge with posh wood paneling and comfortable seating, fitting for the party boat she has become so late in life.

Meanwhile, the lift took us up to the elevated walkways connecting the bridge’s two towers.

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Finally, the main event. The next bridge opening, again for the Thistle who was on her return journey downriver.

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There the Thistle passes, sadly not under sail. Did you notice the lazy person just forward of the mizzenmast?

The eagerly anticipated bridge opening viewed from 40 meters above the river was not as special as I had wished. An immediate disappointment was the narrow and short translucent insert into the walkway floor. I expected a glass floor the length of the walkway. My mistake for not being better informed. The scratched and marred plexiglass (?) sheet has a built-in reinforcement layer that appears as polka dot in photographs. The pattern is strong enough that the camera keeps focusing on it, rather than the action below. Since the “action” is fast moving, manual focus isn’t an option, most of the time. All of the above could have been nice material to create scenarios for my pictures, had it not been for the overwhelming number of tourists up there. Parents let their small children roll around and play on the glass, or worse, they joined them on the filthy surface, obscuring the view for others. If you can visit London outside of school vacations, I encourage you to go up those towers and watch the river pass beneath you. During summer break, it might be a whole lot more fun to sit in a pub and have a glass of cider while watching the bascules open from ground level!

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A walk through the Victorian Engine Room display is a colorful and fun conclusion of the Tower Bridge experience. From there we slowly walked through a neighborhood of gentrified warehouses and dock facilities, encountering restaurants, galleries and any number of specialty shops and posh loft apartments. With one last look back, we headed for the tube and home.

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