About the Thames

Section 10 – Westminster to Queen Elizabeth II bridge

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs and photos by Stephen Worsfold

After leaving Westminster Bridge the next bridge one sees is Number 6 XTD which carries the railway lines over the Thames to Charing Cross station.

Bridge 6 XTD aka Hungerford Bridge and the newly added foot-ways 2003/6

It is now flanked on both sides by the graceful Golden Jubilee walkways (foot bridges) which were constructed in 2000-2003 to replace the old footbridge at this point.

Above, the recently built Golden Jubilee bridges either side of the railway bridge

Waterloo Bridge (headroom 27’10") now traverses the Thames and is a graceful modern structure designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott using self cleaning stone, and built in 1942 using predominately female labour.

This was a quirk of the war years, when the men were away fighting at the front so female labour was drafted in to complete the construction of this bridge. 

 Waterloo Bridge 

Blackfriars Bridge follows (headroom 23’) - this was built as a wrought iron structure in 1860 and designed by Joseph Cubitt and opened by Queen Victoria. It was named after the nearby mediaeval Dominican monastery, whose monks wore the distinctive black habits with hoods - the original "hoodies" of the Middle Ages!

Blackfriars Bridge 

 Immediately after this you go under Blackfriars Rail Bridge (headroom 23’), which was built in 1862 again to a design by Joseph Cubitt to harmonise with his Road Bridge.  This is currently being extensively modernised to complete the new Thameslink and refurbished Blackfriars Station.

Blackfriars Rail Bridge

Next you see the new Millennium Bridge which was opened by the Queen in AD2000, and which spans the river between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern Gallery and Shakespere’s Globe Theatre. It is the first new bridge to have opened in Central London since Tower Bridge. As everyone knows it has had a chequered start. The designer of the bridge had not allowed for what was described as "Lozenge-pattern oscillation" – a unique phenomenon caused when large numbers of people stride out across a suspended structure in a similar walking style. This immediately caused the new bridge to be christened the "Wibbly-Wobbly Bridge" by sarcastic Londoners. The Millennium Bridge was closed soon after it opened, and not reopened until 2002 after £5,000,000 had been spent on dampers to correct the oscillation. It is now one of the most popular ways for people to cross the Thames, as it affords delightful vistas across the old City of London and the huge Dome of St Paul's Cathedral, floating high above the office blocks.

 Millennium Bridge 

Southwark Bridge (headroom 24’3") is next in view. It was built in 1912 and designed by Sir Ernest George with five arches. Cannon Street Railway Bridge is more correctly known as Alexandra Bridge – but everyone knows it as Cannon Street Bridge. It was built in 1863 at the height of the railway boom.

 Southwark Bridge

Arguably the most famous bridge over the Thames is next – this is of course London Bridge. The very first London Bridge was built here over 1000 years ago, while the Romans were in control of London in A.D.43, and it was made of wood. When London was raided by the Danes in AD1013, they sailed upriver and attached ropes to the wooden struts. They then rowed downstream with all their might and managed to pull the bridge down. This is thought to be the origin of the old nursery rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down". It was subsequently repaired in bits and pieces, but in 1209 AD in the reign of King John the first stone bridge was built. It took 30 years to complete. The piers were called "starlings" and were driven deep into the riverbed. They were very close together and caused the tidal waters to rush through underneath the bridge in rapids. A Drawbridge gate was on the southern end of the Bridge – this was the infamous gate upon which heads of traitors were spiked on long wooden poles. The bridge even had shops, houses and a Chapel. It survived the Great Fire of London in AD 1665 and lasted until 1831. It was pulled down and a new bridge erected of stone, to the designs of Sir John Rennie. This graceful structure lasted until 1967, when it was decided that the bridge must be widened to accommodate the vast increase in traffic since Victorian times. Rennie’s bridge was sold for 2 and a half million dollars to some American millionaires, who re-erected it on Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it is now a huge tourist attraction - I personally have seen it and walked across it in its new location, and it is SO narrow! The current London Bridge was opened in 1972 and is a 3-span concrete structure in a simple clean modern design, with a headroom of 29’2".

London Bridge

Tower Bridge (headroom 28’2") is by contrast only just over 100 years old – and yet it is probably London’s most famous landmark. It was built in 1886 to the designs of Sir Horace Jones and John Wolfe-Barry. They tried to create a structure that was in architectural harmony with the nearby Tower of London. It has a unique stone clad steel frame, which supports the bascules – the lifting arms of the roadway which it carries across the Thames. Bascule is the French word for see-saw. The bascules are regularly opened to allow the passage of tall ships upriver to the Pool of London. Again, it is one of the most photographed tourist sights in London - an iconic image known all over the World.

Tower Bridge - Photo by  SW

The Thames now continues its journey down to the sea uninterrupted by bridges with foundations deep in the riverbed. However, one last crossing of the river is made at Dartford, where the graceful lines of the Queen Elizabeth II Suspension Bridge can be seen high above the river. It was completed in 1988 and was - for a while - Europe’s largest cable supported bridge. It is a toll bridge and has a length of 2 miles, and it carries the roadway of the M25 over 150’ above the river – tall enough to allow the largest liners or container ships to pass underneath.

Dartford Bridge - photo courtesy SW

I hope this introduction to the bridges of the River Thames is sufficient to entice you to come and see for yourself the many and various ways in which the builders of these bridges have tackled the problem of spanning the River Thames over its entire length. I also hope you have as much fun and enjoyment out of visiting the bridges and learning about them as I did! Enjoy!

Written by Jeannette Briggs

The River Thames Guide

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