The secrets of London’s most famous bridges

CNN  — 

It’s early morning in the city of London, and the sun’s illuminating Tower Bridge’s turrets. Even just by reflection, the silhouette of this famous bridge is immediately recognizable.

Passersby jostle to use the walkway to get to work. Tourists pose for photographs, stretching to get both towers in their selfie.

If they stick around long enough, they’ll see the bridge do its most famous trick, splitting in two to let ships pass by.

London’s defined by the curving River Thames, the famous tributary which weaves through the city center and into the countryside beyond, defining the landscape and splitting the city in two.

Connecting the dual halves of the city are a series of bridges, from the famous – Tower Bridge, of course, and the Millennium Bridge, star of the “Harry Potter” movies – to lesser known, local landmarks.

So how did bridges become so much a part of London’s DNA?

According to former City of London Planning Officer Peter Wynne Rees, it’s all down to: “a few boatloads of drunken, sex-starved Roman soldiers [who] sailed up the Thames and ran aground.”

Realizing the city had the potential to be a trade hub, the Romans built the city’s first bridge over a low point in the waterway: the first London Bridge.

In the two millennia since, London Bridge has been rebuilt several times and is now joined by 32 other bridges dotted along the Thames. But which bridge is which? And which is worth a visit?

Read on for our complete guide to London’s bridges – and to learn some secrets along the way.

London Bridge

Not to be confused with Tower Bridge...

London dwellers frequently confuse Tower Bridge – the aforementioned Victorian Gothic structure – with the older London Bridge popularized by the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

But Tower Bridge has never been in danger of collapse, whereas London Bridge has gone through several regenerations over the years.

It’s believed that the early Roman pontoon fell into disrepair once the Romans left Britain. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror claimed the throne of England, the bridge got rebuilt and destroyed a couple of times.

In 1209, the first long-lasting bridge was erected – building it took three decades.

It’s this medieval bridge that’s the likely inspiration for the nursery rhyme. The viaduct was at a narrow point of the river, so large volume of water put pressure on it. The arches, meanwhile, weren’t evenly spread out.

There have been multiple iterations of London Bridge over the years.

Plus, this London Bridge was over-populated, home to multiple houses and buildings – and only traversable if a toll was paid.

“It even had spikes along the end, where the heads of malefactors who’d been beheaded for treason were placed on London Bridge, as a warning for people coming into the City of London,” Wynne Rees tells CNN Travel.

Due to this wealth of activity, it’s no surprise London Bridge was often at risk of collapse.

But since this severed-head-medieval-edition, London Bridge has had a few further incarnations.

A 19th century version by John Rennie – immortalized in print by Charles Dickens, as (100-year-old spoiler alert) the site of Nancy’s death in “Oliver Twist” – now straddles Lake Havasu in Arizona in the United States.

How did it end up there?

This detail from Vischer's Panorama of London (1616), shows the over-populated medieval London Bridge.

Well, in the 1960s, the City of London proposed replacing the Victorian bridge with a wider, turreted bridge. The story goes that a group of rich Americans heard this proposition and thought London was knocking down the more attractive Tower Bridge.

The rebuilt London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

“It was only later they discovered that it wasn’t Tower Bridge they were buying but London Bridge, the non-moving one, the 19th century bridge,” explains Wynne Rees.

Rumors now abound that the Americans knew what was up – and it was all a ruse to attract tourists to Arizona. Whatever the truth, the 19th century London Bridge is now a long way from home.

The current London Bridge is not the city’s most beautiful, but its varied history and cultural significance make it a must see.

Find the bridge at: London Bridge, London SE1 9DD

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, opened in 1894, is still a London icon 125 years later.

If you’re disappointed to learn London Bridge is a concrete structure from the 1960s – a visit to the Victorian Gothic splendor of Tower Bridge might be in order.

“Tower Bridge was supposed to be a ceremonial gateway to London,” says Wynne Rees. “Which is why it’s all wrapped up in Gothic stonework even though it’s a modern lifting steel bridge underneath.”

There’s a whopping 11,000 tonnes worth of steel on the bridge.

During the building of Tower Bridge in the late 1800s, about 5,000 tonnes of steel a week was shipped down from Glasgow, Scotland, Tower Bridge tour guide Rosie Haines tells CNN Travel.

As for the striking design, it was decided via public competition, with city architect Horace Jones coming up top.

Tower Bridge lifts to let boats pass through.

Jones designed the turreted bridge to complement its famous neighbor: the Tower of London.

He designed the bridge’s bascules to tilt skywards, allowing ships to pass through.

The city’s developers were keen to ensure the bridge wouldn’t block trade coming in and out of London, then a thriving center of the commerce.

The walkways between the two towers were originally public paths, but they closed in 1910 to discourage so-called “ladies of the night” from frequenting them.

Brave Tower Bridge visitors can take a stroll on the Glass Walkways.

In 2014, Tower Bridge installed new glass walkways connecting the two towers. The clear floors offering glimpses of the river rushing 138 feet below, while wide windows showcase the city’s skyline.

From the walkways, visitors can admire the views westwards, to The Shard and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Views east spotlight the former London warehouses and Jacob’s Island, made famous in the novels of Charles Dickens.

The bridge still lifts to let boats pass by – it opens as much it needs to depending on the size of the boat.

“A bridge lift can take about 5 minutes to 15, depending on the size,” says Haines.

And fun fact: former US President Bill Clinton once got stuck on the south side of the river by Butler’s Wharf during a bridge lift.

“It just goes to show that even if you are the President of the United States, the bridge lift will take precedent over you!” laughs Haines.

Find the bridge at: Tower Bridge, Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 2UP

Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge leads to the Palace of Westminster and offers stunning views of Big Ben.

Westminster Bridge is a London landmark, thanks to its prime location and panoramic views of the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben clock tower.

A bridge at Westminster was first suggested way back in the 1600s, but it was widely opposed, in part because of an outcry from the “watermen.”

Back when London had far fewer bridges and no trusty London Underground travel system, the watermen made money from ferrying pedestrians across the river in boats.

The original Westminster Bridge circa 1790, from an aquatint by Farrington and Stadler.

Westminster Bridge was eventually approved, the watermen were given compensation, and the bridge opened in 1750.

This bridge was immortalized in artwork by JMW Turner and a newer version, designed by architect Thomas Page, was opened in 1862.

That bridge still stands today, it’s actually the oldest Thames road bridge in central London.

As for the design, its Gothic details complement the Palace of Westminster, and it’s painted green to match the leather seats in the House of Commons.

The Gothic design of the Bridge complements the architecture of the Houses of Parliament.

Wesminster Bridge is a busy thoroughfare, but if you have time to stop and stare, you can admire breathtaking vistas that’ll give you pause for thought.

It’s no wonder that the bridge also inspired British poet William Wordsworth, who was moved to write “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” in 1802:

“Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/Open unto the fields, and to the sky.”

The view may have changed a bit since Wordsworth’s day, but it’s still a sight to behold.

Find the bridge at: Westminster Bridge, London SE1 7GL

Lambeth Bridge

Can you spot the pineapples on Lambeth Bridge?

Further downstream from Westminster you’ll spot Lambeth Bridge. Where Westminster’s green, Lambeth Bridge is painted red to match the leather seats in the House of Lords.

Originally opened in 1862, this first bridge was later deemed unsafe. The newer bridge, which will stands today, opened in 1932.

Wynne Rees says that tourists unsure whether they should head to Westminster or Lambeth, should go for the latter. There are better views, he says, and it’s quieter.

Lambeth Bridge in 1932, featuring a gentleman riding a penny farthing bicycle, he's blowing a bugle to warn people he's coming.

The design mixes tradition with quirks: Just look at the pineapples.

Ask most Londoners and even they won’t know the story behind this fruity adornment to Lambeth Bridge.

“John Tradescant, a plantsman – collector of rare plants who traveled the world, was the first person to bring a pineapple into England, and indeed to present it to the king,” explains Wynne Rees. “The fact that he lived nearby is denoted by the pineapples on Lambeth Bridge.”

Lambeth Bridge is situated next to Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and also offers views of both MI5 and MI6, the British spy headquarters – so it’s the perfect place to channel your inner James Bond.

“In the old days, Lambeth Bridge, I imagine, would have been very much the sort of place where people would have exchanged secret messages just passing on the bridge, the message drop,” says Wynne Rees.

“So when one visits Lambeth Bridge, one can think of spies, as well as pineapples.”

Find the bridge at: Lambeth Bridge, London SE1 7SG

Millennium Bridge

The Millennium Bridge, one of the newest additions to London's Thames.

One of the newest additions to the Thames cityscape is Millennium Bridge. Officially called the London Millennium Footbridge, this pathway links the Tate Modern with St. Paul’s Cathedral.

When it first opened in 2000, the bridge hit the headlines for the wrong reasons – when large numbers of people crossed the bridge, it started to sway.

The Millennium Bridge was closed for two years, re-opening in 2002 – mercifully wobble-free.

Wynne Rees was City Planner during the development of the Millennium Bridge and explains some of the considerations that were put into place during the design process.

The Millennium Bridge no longer wobbles.

“I was initially concerned about the construction of the Millennium Bridge, because it was built into a walkway on the North side of the river, that had been created especially to provide an uninterrupted view of the whole height of St. Paul’s Cathedral from boats on the river,” he says.

In London, views of St. Paul’s Cathedral are often protected, and this stipulation is usually considered when new buildings are developed.

“The Millennium Bridge blocks that view; however, I think it probably more than compensates for the loss,” says Wynne Rees.

“Once it had been put right mechanically it’s been a very popular tourist attraction and, indeed, helps to link two key tourist features of London – the Tate Modern on the South Bank of the river and St. Paul’s Cathedral to the north.”

The view of St Paul's Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge.

Meanwhile, “Harry Potter” fans might recognize the walkway from the movie “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” in which it is memorably destroyed by the Death Eaters.

In real life, Millennium Bridge is Death-Eater-free and there are no signs of wobbliness.

Find the bridge at: Millennium Bridge, Thames Embankment, London SE1 9JE

Vauxhall Bridge

Vauxhall -- the unlikely origins for the Russian word for railway station.

Another bridge with a quirky back story can be found in Vauxhall, in south west London, near Vauxhall railway station.

In the mid-19th century, a Russian delegation visited London to admire a new railway that terminated in this area.

“They took the word ‘Vauxhall’ to mean ‘station’ and went back to Russia and, to this day, main railway stations in Russia are denoted as ‘vokzal,’” says Wynne Rees.

The initial Vauxhall Bridge was replaced with a more modern version in 1906.

The new bridge is adorned with large bronze sculptures representing the Arts and Sciences, designed by sculptors Frederick Pomeroy and Alfred Drury.

One of the figures, symbolizing Architecture, holds a miniature sculpture of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Find the bridge at: Vauxhall Bridge, London

Southwark Bridge

Southwark Bridge neighbors the Globe Theatre.

If you can’t face the crowds on some of the capital’s busier bridges, Southwark Bridge might be a good alternative.

Opened in 1921, Southwark replaced an older bridge designed by John Rennie – the man behind the Victorian London Bridge and Waterloo Bridge – known as Queen Street bridge.

“It gives you excellent views of the Millennium Bridge, the newest bridge over the river, as well as downstream across the river and, indeed, excellent views up to St Paul’s,” says Wynne Rees. “You can see St Paul’s on the skyline and the modern cluster of towers in the eastern part of the city.”

Underneath the bridge are plaques celebrating its history.

The crosswalk neighbors the Globe Theatre, Sam Wanamaker’s recreation of the iconic Elizabethan theater associated with playwright William Shakespeare.

Find the bridge at: Southwark Bridge, Southwark Bridge Road, London EC4R 1QS

Blackfriars Bridge

Blackfriars Bridge gets its name from a monastery that was once based at the site.

Blackfriars Bridge gets its name from the Dominican monastery based at this site during the medieval period.

The original Blackfriars Bridge opened in 1769, the third crossing to breach the River Thames.

A newer version was opened by Queen Victoria in 1869, in what was a rare public appearance following the death of her beloved King Albert. There’s now a commemorative statue of Victoria on the north side of the Bridge.

Underneath the bridge, passerbys can learn about Blackfriars' history.

The bridge has some other design quirks: it harks back to its monastical roots with pulpit-shaped pillars, while on the bridge’s piers are stone carvings of water birds by the sculptor John Birnie Philip.

These red pillars, between Blackfriars Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, formed part of the original 1864 railway bridge.

The bridge also gained notoriety in 1982 when the body of Roberto Calvi – the former chairman of an Italian private bank – was found hanging under the bridge with bricks and thousands of dollars in his pockets.

Originally viewed as suicide, it later prompted a murder investigation. The case has never been solved.

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge is named after the battle of Waterloo, which took place in 1815.

Waterloo Bridge is a busy road and foot bridge.

Its name, like its neighboring train station, commemorates the British victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The first iteration of Waterloo Bridge appeared on the banks of the Thames just a few years after this memorable battle, in 1817.

Waterloo Bridge was built during the Second World War.

The 19th century bridge, designed by John Rennie, was made famous in paintings by Claude Monet and John Constable.

But by the early 20th century, it needed replacing and a new design was commissioned by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the designer of Britain’s iconic phone boxes.

Waterloo Bridge was built by women as the men were at war.

This bridge, opened in 1942, still stands today. It’s sometimes nicknamed “The Ladies’ Bridge.”

That’s because the bridge was constructed during World War II and so, with most men away fighting, the laboring was mostly left to the women.

Find the bridge at: Waterloo Bridge, London, WC2R 2PP

Hammersmith Bridge

Picturesque Hammersmith Bridge is a London highlight.

Further west along the river Thames lies Hammersmith Bridge, a Grade II* listed suspension bridge designed by famous civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

It’s the second bridge to grace this site, the first operated from the 1820s to the 1870s. This edition has been in action since its opening in 1887.

The bridge is adorned with seven coats of arms, including the coat of arms of the cities of London, Kent, Guildford, Colchester and the original coats of arms for the City of Westminster and Middlesex.

Hammersmith Bridge conjures images of bygone London.

It’s striking, and the green and gold color scheme adds to the majestic air.

Hammersmith Bridge has also long been a great spot from which to watch the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, an annual rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Hammersmith Bridge is the perfect spot to watch the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

It’s not the city’s oldest bridge, but it’s got a certain romance about it.

“It’s very much the sort of bridge where if you shut your eyes you can hear a hansom cab trotting towards you, particularly if it’s a little bit foggy,” says Wynne Rees.

The bridge is currently closed to motorists “indefinitely” due to safety concerns, however pedestrians can still walk across it.

Find the bridge at: Hammersmith Bridge, London W6 9XF

Richmond Bridge

If you’re after a slice of London history, you could do no better than Richmond Bridge – opened in 1777 and the oldest surviving Thames Bridge in the London.

The original Victorian gas lamps are still intact, even if they’ve been illuminated via electricity since the 1960s.

It’s possibly not quite as pretty as Hammersmith, but Richmond is a lovely area in the south west of London, home to Richmond Park, famous for its deer.

It’s worth a visit, but bare in mind that, according to the Richmond Bridge Act of 1772, vandals caught defacing the bridge would be sentenced to seven years exile in “His Majesty’s Colonies in America for the space of seven years.”

Find the bridge at: Richmond Bridge, A305, Richmond, London TW9 1EW