Normally, my series of crossings on the River Thames follows the chronological order downstream. The pattern should have been Westminster Bridge, Hungerford Bridge and now Waterloo Bridge. However, as this month saw the 800th anniversary of Old London Bridge, which was the first stone crossing over the Thames. Given this event, I thought it appropriate, not only to visit London Bridge, but to find out how much of the various bits of bridges were hanging about our fair city.
I am going to be blunt. The modern day London Bridge is an ugly, but functional structure. Six lanes of traffic and two wide footpaths connect The City with Southwark. Built in the 1960’s, it has all the inspiration of that era. But the magic of London Bridge does not come from its present, but from its past. There is arguably no other structure as significant as London Bridge with relation to the history and the formation of this metropolis. Without London Bridge, London would not be the city that it is. The structure of the city, its growth and geographical layout, the divisions of the urban area that it is today. Even the positioning and status of the suburbs would not have been as it is, had it not been for London Bridge. The story of London Bridge is interwoven with the history of the city. There has been at least six incarnations of a solid crossing at or close to the present position of London bridge, probably a few more to boot. At least one during the Roman period, a minimum of two during the Saxon/Danish and early Norman period (as they were timber, they were probably replaced fairly frequently). Then came Old London Bridge, followed by Rennie’s Victorian replacement and today we have the modern day structure:
The history of London Bridge is a long and fascinating one and I am only going to briefly flirt with it. The Roman bridge was constructed out of timber, just a few yards to the east of the modern day construction. This becoming first crossing point of the Thames when coming up from the continent, giving Londinium an instant advantage as a meeting point of land and sea routes.
The bridge(s) constructed during Saxon/Danish times, after Lundenwic became Lundenburgh was an important structure as it was built not only for crossing the Thames but as a barrier for Viking raiders. This London Bridge was built with a shallow clearance which meant that the Viking longboats could no longer venture any further upstream along the Thames. The bridge not only served as a barrage but also as a handy place to hurl boulders on raiders coming upstream. This barrier was also significant as it also prevented sea faring trade from being able to go any further upstream than the Saxon town of Lundenburgh. London Bridge now marked the boundary between sea going traffic and inland movements, a division that is still in place today. In other words, if you want to see how the ‘West End’ and ‘East End’ began their divisions, look here to London Bridge. In a very handy way too for the people living here, if you wanted to move goods further inland, you had to change in London. Once again, it became a focal point of trading routes and the city prospered.
However, we cannot so easily skirt over Old London Bridge, the structure with longest incarnation on the site, and the one that really shaped the city we live in today. Old London Bridge, which was opened in 1209, stood firm on its Norman foundations until it was demolished in 1831. For over half a millennia, this structure took Londoners over the Thames and for much of its time housed a great many of the city’s residents. It would have been magnificent to see it today, if it was able to stand, with its medieval buildings balancing precariously over the water. This iconic structure was the bridge that really shaped London for generations to come and can be argued to be the most significant building to have been ever constructed in London, past or present.
This bridge stood alone on the Thames until 1729 and it was not until you reached Kingston that you could cross the river without getting your feet wet. It had a monopoly on crossing the river, dry. If you want to know why South London is so backward, this is the culprit. Only one access point to the main city meant that land growth would be concentrated to the north of the river, in order to avoid the tolls and this notorious bottleneck. The City of London got a nice little earner from London Bridge and it was not until common sense prevailed in 1750 with the opening of Westminster Bridge that this stranglehold on London was finally broken. Obviously, money rather than common sense has blighted this city, which is why nothing really works in London. Old London Bridge is probably the reason why we in Britain drive on the left.
But all good things must come to an end, and it would inevitably be the Victorians that would do it. In 1831, a new bridge was constructed, slightly upstream of Old London Bridge. That necessitated a change in the layout of roads within the city, a change that is apparent today by the kink in the road as you are coming down Gracechurch street towards the Thames:
However, due to Old London Bridge’s structure, the river Thames was effectively bottled up. There were so many piers that Old London Bridge hampered the river’s flow. This led to a build up of silt and made the Thames a calm waterway. This meant that the Thames would easily freeze over leading to those famed frost fairs. Once Old London Bridge had been removed, the Thames no longer froze. Also, the river began to flow more rapidly. This rapid movement of water washed away the silt that had built up on the riverbed for over 600 years. Suddenly a lot of bridges in London had to be replaced including Westminster Bridge, Blackriars and Waterloo Bridges all had to be replaced when Old London Bridge came tumbling down (I told you that London Bridge impacted on this city in more than the obvious ways). So too did the ‘New London Bridge’ which was promptly demolished in the 1960’s, with most of it being shipped off to Arizona USA. However, part of Rennie’s bridge still stands on the Southwark end carrying traffic over Montague Street.
Despite the building of bridges along the Thames, London Bridge remained the easternmost solid crossing point until the Thames Tunnel was opened in 1843. And until Tower Bridge was built at the end of the 19th century, London Bridge remained the most easterly bridge along the river Thames. It is probably the reason why London’s first railway terminus was built here and named after it in 1836.
And so we are here, in the 21st century, some 2000 years after the first crossing point along the Thames was constructed, pretty much at this point, give or take a few yards. Today, London Bridge, does not have the trading significance of old, now that the Port of London is effectively at Tilbury. Nor does it have the importance of being the only road crossing in London, with many more over the river. It is no longer an iconic structure, that mantle being taken with the more famous Tower Bridge. However, while it will probably never regain the significance it had of old, there is probably no other building or site in London that has had a more profound effect on the city that stands here today, than that of London Bridge.
Getting there and away:
The following buses serve London Bridge: 17, 21, 35, 40, 43 (24hr), 47, 48, 133, 141, 149 (24 hr), 343, 381, 521, RV1, N21, N35, N47, N133, N343 and N381. The nearest tubes are London Bridge (on the south bank) and Monument (on the north bank). The nearest railway line is London Bridge mainline station, and you can also get there via London Bridge pier on the ferry.