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A new bridge for London

Posted in Architecture, Historical articles, London on Tuesday, 26 July 2011

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This edited article about London’s bridges originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 996 published on 11 April 1981.

Old London Bridge, picture, image, illustration

Old London Bridge

Of all the bridges which cross the River Thames as it runs through the sprawling metropolis of London, the most famous is London Bridge. Not the one that is always falling down in the rhyme sung by children throughout the English-speaking world, but another London Bridge completed in 1209.

This, the first stone bridge to be built over the swiftly-flowing river, was famous for the street of houses and shops which extended across it.

Incorporated in it was a drawbridge, which could be raised in the event of a threat to the city from the south bank of the Thames.

Now, however, a plan has been mooted for a new pedestrian London Bridge incorporating offices, shops, an ice rink, a public house and a main square. The proposed new structure would be erected in a position east of the present London Bridge.

The designer of this ambitious bridge is the architect Richard Seifert. An Act of Parliament would have to be passed to enable it to be built, and the Corporation of the City of London, in whose area the bridge would be constructed, say that discussions are still in their early stages.

If it is constructed, however, this would be unlike any other London bridge. The first plans were for it to be modelled upon the original London Bridge, which survived until 1832, when it was destroyed and the piles pulled up.

London Bridge Station and the Tower of London and St Katherine’s Dock would be linked by the new bridge. As well as providing shopping facilities, the bridge will provide employment. Staff will be required for the shops and other amenities, and for the office blocks which would be set around central courtyards. These would interconnect with each other.

It is estimated that 8,400 people walk across the river’s bridges from the London Bridge main line and Underground stations every working day. Should the plans for the bridge be accepted, financial backers found and the construction undertaken, it will be an historic occasion, for the building of bridges across the Thames in London is rare.

For more than 500 years, the only bridge across the Thames in the metropolis was the London Bridge which was built between 1175 and 1209. This replaced an earlier wooden bridge.

Old London Bridge was stripped of its timber-built houses and shops during the 18th century. When it was finally removed, its place was taken by a bridge built by the famous Scottish engineer John Rennie.

With the seat of Parliament firmly established in Westminster by the 18th century, the need for a bridge in that area was apparent. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1736 for a bridge over the river at Westminster, enabling Members of Parliament from south of the river to shorten their journey to the Houses of Parliament.

This Westminster bridge survived until 1850, when it was replaced by the present bridge, which has seven arches mounted on granite piers. Farther to the east, the City followed this inspiring example by having a bridge built at Blackfriars in 1760. After a hundred years it gave way to the bridge which can be seen today and which crosses the river on five sweeping iron arches.

During the Victorian era there was a spate of bridge building. Four were erected over the Thames in the central London area . . . Vauxhall, Waterloo, Southwark, and Rennie’s London Bridge, which was completed in 1831 and which experienced a strange fate in 1968.

This bridge was dismantled stone by stone and shipped all the way across the Atlantic to the desert town of Lake Havasu City in Arizona. There it rivals the Grand Canyon, 100 kilometres away, as a spectacular tourist attraction. There is a story that the American buyers originally thought that it was the Tower Bridge that they were buying, and were at first somewhat disappointed with their purchase.

It left Britain because it was necessary to replace it with a wider bridge to take London’s increased traffic. This traffic is still growing, and as there are large numbers of pedestrians in the City during the working week, the proposed pedestrian bridge could be of use to them.

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