London along the river: a tale of thirty-three bridges

London along the river: a tale of thirty-three bridges

I am not an architecture geek. I don’t know anything about construction and the mechanics of bridges elude me. If someone tries to talk to me about friction and force and tension again, I’ll scream (the mechanics modules in my maths A-level were enough). I’ve never expressed any interest in any bridge, ever.

However, for a reason still unbeknownst to me, I really, really wanted to cycle along the river and see every bridge along the Thames in Greater London. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with living so close to Tower Bridge. I have spent so many evenings in the past year looking at that bridge, whether from the riverfront bar that I bring all my friends to because the view is just so good or as part of a gentle evening walk when I know the sunset will be amazing behind the bridge and the City. Tower Bridge is just an extremely majestic structure. It’s a bascule and suspension bridge (I googled this obviously), that looks like two mini castles with bright blue and white accentsIt’s amazing. It’s surrounded by the City and the Shard; sandwiched between many levels of glass and power suits. Between all this modernity, there’s a castle. I love it.

Tower Bridge has made me appreciate the other bridges in London so much more. Crossing the Thames always makes me outwardly delighted, whether driving across Vauxhall Bridge to head out of West London or cycling home from the centre across Waterloo Bridge at night (which is one of my all-time favourite views in London). I cross Blackfriars Bridge every day on my way to and from work. I have spent many hours rowing along the Thames in Southwest London, admiring the bridges that line the Championship course (Hammersmith used to be my favourite London bridge until I saw Tower Bridge and realised Hammersmith is trash in comparison). London is built around the Thames and the bridges are integral to knowing the city.

I wanted to see them all and appreciate how the city fit together. So one sunny Saturday morning, we set off to cycle from Tower Bridge all the way to Hampton Court Bridge, the last bridge in Greater London. That’s thirty-three bridges. I didn’t count them before we left, and only did the smallest smidge of route planning to decide which bridges we should actually cross to stay closest to the river on each side. I was also wildly over-optimistic about how long this endeavour would take. We left at 9am and I figured we’d be home by 1.30pm. Spoiler alert, we weren’t home until after 4pm, due to a combination of cake stops, photo stops and the general crapness of Southwest Trains (we took the train back to Waterloo from Hampton Court after reaching the triumphant final bridge).

Bridge 1: Tower Bridge

We started with the best bridge of them all, the furthest east bridge in London, Tower Bridge. I’ve already waxed poetic about this bridge and shared some photos, so I won’t go on about it, but rest assured it is beautiful and completely worth seeing. Still one of my favourite views in London.

Bridge 2: London Bridge

Honestly, London Bridge is a bit meh. It’s plain, it’s grey, it’s no river straddling mini castle. Why would you go to see London Bridge when Tower Bridge is right there, a mere half mile away? As with all the central bridges, I’ve seen London Bridge many times and it remains non-descript.

Bridge 3: Cannon Street Railway Bridge

The first bridge we encountered solely for trains. Again, given its central location you’d maybe expect a little more flair but this bridge is so forgettable I’d never even noticed it. However, bonus points for the great views of St Paul’s and the City.

Bridge 4: Southwark Bridge

Now we’re talking. The turquoise and gold colour scheme is the stuff of my dreams (if my dreams were boring and interior design-themed). Beautiful, ornate lampposts run along the length of the bridge and St Paul’s makes another appearance.

Bridge 5: Millennium Bridge

A suitable bridge to lead to the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge is definitely the arty sibling of the London bridges. For pedestrians only, this bridge has only been closed oncefor an unexpected swaying motion that gave it the nickname ‘the wobbly bridge’. A reassuring nickname and statistic. It’s only an eight minute non-stop cycle between this bridge and Tower Bridge, so at this point the bridge to minutes-of-cycling ratio was still very favourable (if you fast-forward to 4 hours and about a billion bridges later, desperately searching the horizon for Kingston Bridge, you’ll understand that the bridge to cycling ratio takes a sharp downturn later on and we should have appreciated it more while it lasted).

Bridge 6: Blackfriars Railway Bridge

I honestly can’t get that excited about the railway bridges. It’s a very fancy, glass train station. Though admittedly it’s pretty cool to wait for your train with panoramic views of London across the Thames so maybe I’m being too harsh.

Bridge 7: Blackfriars Bridge

A bridge I know so well that I could tell you the traffic light algorithms for all the roads feeding onto it. My commute depends on this structure. Plus it has an enormous cycle superhighway route over it making it much safer for all of us cyclists in rush hour traffic (though some other cyclists who seem to think that their ‘Team Sky’ jerseys make them the Chris Froome of Central London also pose quite a health hazard). Our route involved crossing this bridge, so we headed over and joined the cycle path on the north side of the river to reach our next stop.

Bridge 8: Waterloo Bridge

For a bridge that provides the most breath-taking panorama of London, it is such a disappointment. Bland, boring and grey. Much better to be on this bridge than next to it.

Bridge 9: Hungerford Bridge (and the Golden Jubilee footbridges)

Hungerford Bridge is another train bridge. I bet if you polled the city for the name and location of this bridge you’d get a single-digit correct response rate.

Bridge 10: Westminster Bridge

This is one of the really famous ones. Alas, the sun was right above the bridges at this point in the day so it was exceedingly difficult to get a good picture. The lack of acceptable light conditions was tempered by being by the Houses of Parliament, which are actually very imposing and elaborate. I guess I understand why Westminster Bridge is just green and plain given it has such a notable landmark right next to it. If Tower Bridge was next to the House of Parliament it would be far too much peak London in one square mile.

Bridge 11: Lambeth Bridge

Lambeth Bridge was unexpectedly pretty, despite suffering from the same sun problems as its predecessor. I especially love when the name of the bridge is printed on it, so Lambeth gets full marks for that.

Bridge 12: Vauxhall Bridge

As mentioned previously, I have driven over Vauxhall Bridge numerous times to get to West London. However, being on it, especially in a car, means that I’d never looked at it. It’s so cool and detailed. This was the peak of the sun ruining my photography so I hope these (washed-out, sub-par) photos do it justice. There are casts of people on it?! And it’s bright red, blue and yellow. When you compare it to a snooze-fest like Waterloo Bridge you see that Vauxhall has a lot going for it.

Bridge 13: Grosvenor Bridge

See now we’re getting to the bridges that I’d never heard of. Can’t say Grosvenor will be sticking in my mind as a particularly memorable bridge. It’s very clean and white. But not all that interesting. Also it’s a railway bridge so is already inherently less interesting by my standards.

Bridge 14: Chelsea Bridge

We crossed Chelsea Bridge to head back onto the south side of the river for the next contingent of bridges. Chelsea Bridge is quite detailed and pretty, but isn’t what I expected for the Chelsea Bridge. Where are the small dogs, backstabbing and poorly scripted conversations that make Chelsea what it is? This would have been more convincing with a few chihuahuas embossed in gold on the side.

Bridge 15: Albert Bridge

This is a great suspension bridge (though I obviously don’t know what a suspension bridge is specifically, because, as I said, I’ve never shown any interest in bridges before today). It’s especially striking when it’s lit up at night, though given this was during the day I was able to see all the details and pastel colours up close. It’s actually coloured with very gentle greens, pinks and blues alongside the white base. However, despite being aesthetically pleasing, this bridge has very much slipped into the middle of the day muddle. We’d seen a lot of bridges at this point. Despite the memory haze, this is still one of the good ones.

Bridge 16: Battersea Bridge

Battersea Bridge was almost condemned to the same harsh judgement that Waterloo received of being concrete and boring. It was saved by the intricate gold swirls on the arches and the cute lampposts. It’s all in the details.

Bridge 17: Battersea Railway Bridge

You know by now how I feel about railway bridges. This one had the mildly redeeming feature of being two pleasant shades of green.

Bridge 18: Wandsworth Bridge

There are a lot of bridges in London, aren’t there?

Bridge 19: Fulham Railway Bridge

This bridge was so forgettable that I forgot to add it into this write-up originally and had to go back and add it in at the end. So that sums that up.

Bridge 20: Putney Bridge

Putney Bridge is another bridge I know well. I have crossed this bridge many times on bike and foot and rowed underneath it many times. I have lamented the trek between Putney Bridge tube station and my friend Iona’s house too many times to count. I’ve drunk-cried by this bridge and sampled numerous pizzas within the bridge’s five hundred-metre radius. A good spot.

Due to knowing Putney so well and knowing that, along with housing most of London’s rowing community and my best friend, it also is home to numerous excellent brunches, we stopped for cake. It was about 11.30 at this point. I knew it was time for cake because Jake was getting hangry and I was getting hangry about him getting hangry. If we wanted to make it to Hampton Court without one of us getting pushed in the river we needed a sugar fix, fast. So we stopped at Dynamo.

Cake improves everything. As does a discount for wearing lycra.

Refuelled and renewed in our affection for each other, we headed back to the river. As we cycled along the embankment to re-join the towpath, I kept my eye out for Iona who would likely be rowing at this time. We spotted her getting into the boat and yelled “IONA”. As soon as she caught my eye she looked overjoyed and yelled “I MISS YOU”. She’s a keeper.

Bridge 21: Hammersmith Bridge

Hammersmith used to be my favourite bridge because it was green, which was kind of close to turquoise, which is similar to my favourite colour of minty green (or Cambridge blue). It was tenuous link. My first look at Hammersmith confirmed my suspicions that it was less striking than I remembered. However, I have had so many formative experiences near this bridge; working with my friends during a race, winning a piece against another crew or that one time we sat near the bridge in our boat being held by the police because there was a gunman hiding there (though London is super safe. Obviously. I mean that only happened one time) that I will always have a soft spot for it. Plus on second second look, it is still pretty majestic.

Bridge 22: Barnes Bridge

I’d forgotten how awful cycling on the towpath is. As if miles of grit and uneven terrain wasn’t enough, the number of small children, oblivious joggers and dogs with a death wish running about in front of us made the section challenging. Eventually we made it to Barnes, another bridge I know well from the river.

Bridge 23: Chiswick Bridge

Between Barnes and Chiswick, disaster struck. In an attempt to avoid crashing into a woman on an extremely narrow and muddy patch of towpath, Jake fell over. He scraped up his knee, arm and right thigh but took it like a champ. I started fussing almost immediately but he brushed me off with, “I’m fine. Falling off bikes is part of cycling, stop fussing.”

If you fast-forward about five hours you would then see him pouting at me, saying, “could you please run me a bath? Actually, maybe you could make me some food before my bath? It really hurts… yes, of course I’m milking it.”

We continued on to Chiswick Bridge, just past the end of the Boat Race course. Other than a few days per year, I’m sure this part of the river tends to be very quiet aside from the occasional rowing boat. On Boat Race day, however, the riverbanks are literally teeming with hundreds and thousands of people. I’ve been up at the end of the race twice, crying live on the BBC with pride while watching my friends (triumphantly!) come through Chiswick Bridge. Today, though, it was quiet and peaceful.

Bridge 24: Kew Railway Bridge

This marked new territory for me, as I’d never been this far past Chiswick Bridge before. I’d only briefly looked at the map before embarking on this trip, but I figured we must be getting close-ish. I’d forgotten just how spread out the bridges get the further west you go. We were so far from done.

Bridge 25: Kew Bridge

This was a nice bridge. I especially liked the gold name on the bridge itself. Are we nearly there yet?

Bridge 26: Richmond Lock and Footbridge (AKA Richmond Bridge #1)

We thought this was Richmond Bridge. That led Jake to say “Oh, that means there’s only a couple more!” We were wrong. This is actually Richmond Lock and Footbridge. Of course.

Yes, we could have checked google maps at this point. But – whether out of idiocy or a desire to preserve the adventure, I’m not sure – we didn’t. The end point of this cycle would continue to be a mystery.

Bridge 27: Twickenham Bridge (AKA Richmond Bridge #2)

Oh, so if that wasn’t Richmond Bridge, this one must be, right? Wrong. This is, of course, Twickenham Bridge. Because putting another bridge between a number of Richmond-themed bridges makes perfect sense. Sure.

Bridge 28: Richmond Railway Bridge (AKA If This Isn’t Richmond Bridge I’m Renaming It AKA Richmond Bridge #3)

Sign stating clearly that this was Richmond Bridge – check. Excellent. We have found the elusive Richmond Bridge. Surprisingly, it’s extremely close to Twickenham Bridge. Huh. That wasn’t what we expected but there is a very clear sign stating that this is Richmond Bridge.

Bridge 29: Richmond Bridge (AKA Kingston Bridge #1)

After four Richmond Bridges, we finally found it. I thought it was Kingston Bridge, because I thought we’d already found Richmond Bridge due the aforementioned clear sign stating ‘RICHMOND. BRIDGE.’ But of course, trusting this sign was a rookie mistake.

At this point, we were cycling a decent distance between each bridge, especially compared to that start of this trip where you could see six central bridges from one spot. So to find out that this bridge wasn’t the penultimate bridge, Kingston Bridge, but in fact a bridge we thought we’d passed some miles back was disappointing.

It was also starting to feel distinctly like we’d left London. You could feel the polluted air in your lungs being replaced by something fresher. Children played in the street without fear that an errant Boris Bike would strike them down. A man was playing a gentle tune on the violin without fear of a pigeon attack or verbal abuse. The water was looking a much healthier shade of green compared to the shit brown colour you see in the centre. This was the proper suburbs.

Bridge 30: Teddington Lock Footbridges.

There are no photos of this bridge. This because we cycled past it and I said, aloud, that it clearly wasn’t on the list because it was so small and unimposing compared to the others. It didn’t look like an Official London Bridge.

But I was wrong. I did this whole endeavour, which took seven hours and hit up thirty-three bridges and harmed my boyfriend and I couldn’t even be bothered to google whether this would be the one to complete the set. I’m ashamed of myself.

(But also it’s so plain and boring. Trust me you haven’t missed anything.)

Bridge 31: Kingston Railway Bridge

I should really stop trashing railway bridges. After all, they get thousands of people where they need to be every day. Plus this one was bright white. Wikipedia offered me nothing interesting to add to this section so I’ll stop here.

Bridge 32: Kingston Bridge

So close. SO CLOSE.

Bridge 33: Hampton Court Bridge

We did it. This wasn’t a test of physical endurance, as it was reasonable cycling distance with frequent stops (not that I checked the distance before we started because that would have been too organised), but I was intrigued about whether the whole plan would, well, work. Would it be fun? Would the route work? Would the weather cooperate? Would it just be really lame?

Fortunately the answers to those questions are yes, yes, yes and a defiant no. It was a great way to see London. It was a great way hit up some important spots of my past life. It was great way to spend a beautiful, sunny Saturday.

Also – the bridges aren’t boring. Some of them are (cough Waterloo cough), but for the most part they are all different, detailed and colourful. I mean, I’ve just written three thousand words about these bridges. We missed lunch because we were having such a good time. Clearly, there’s something there.

After a victory ice cream, we started the protracted journey home. The train we hopped on was almost an hour delayed but it wouldn’t be London if the train timetable wasn’t wrong somehow. As we cycled back from Waterloo Station to our place, that morning felt very far away. And I felt lucky.

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