Along the Thames are some of the most iconic buildings of London. Rich in architectural and cultural history, each has a fascinating tale to tell and from the river you are in the best possible place to appreciate the grand buildings and understand the stories that lie behind their facades. There is so much to see that we are going to focus on four sections over a series of blogs: West, Central and East, which we will split into two areas – the Pool of London and Maritime London.
We will start our journey not far from our base – covering the point of embarkation for many of our boats – in the Pool of London. The area covers the tideway from London Bridge to below Tower Bridge, recently extended to cover St Katherine’s Dock and Shad Thames. It’s not a huge area, but it has a number of incredible buildings to look out for.
Not much to look at here…. or is there? The box girder bridge opened in 1973, replacing a 19th century stone bridge, which in turn took the place of a 600 year old medieval structure. Prior to that there were a number of timber bridges – the first one built by the Romans. So, while the actual bridge may not be that pretty, the crossing itself is of massive historical importance. Until Putney Bridge opened in 1729 this was the only place to cross the river downstream of Kingston.
This is the navy’s last surviving cruiser, the largest preserved warship in Europe. Launched in 1938 she was part of the D-Day landings, played a role in the Korean War, transported military around the world and been involved in many stealth attacks. At one point her career was nearly cut short – a huge magnetic mine put her out of action for 2 years, but she was rebuilt and came back even stronger. When she eventually retired from action she was saved from the scrap metal yard by the Imperial War Museum, whose tireless efforts to maintain her ensure that we can all experience what it must have been like for crews in the cramped quarters of a warship. From the water you get the best view of her nine decks, rising steeply out of the water. She looks enormous and impenetrable – imagine facing that in a battle!
An iconic symbol of the city – ask most people and they think this is London Bridge! As with most of the ornate structures in London, it was the Victorians that came up with this crossing to alleviate the huge traffic problems on London Bridge. Built in 1886-1894, the two towers joined by narrow walkways allow for the lower bridge to be opened but the walkways to remain. The bascules (which means seesaw in French) weigh over 1,000 tonnes each and are held up by counterbalances. Nowadays this is managed electronically but originally a steam based hydraulic system was used. Despite this sounding very complex, the bascules could be raised in just a minute to the required 86 degrees. Although the very concept of the walkways was to help people cross without the disruption of river traffic, ironically the walkways closed in 1910 because people couldn’t be bothered to climb the stairs and would wait for the bridge to close again!
While sailing underneath the bridge keep in mind this fascinating fact – in 1912 Frank McClean had to fly between the bascules and the walkways in his biplane to avoid crashing. A London bus also had to ‘make the leap’ in 1952 when the bridge began to open just as it reached the centre. No doubt these went on to inspire many a Hollywood movie stunt!
The Tower of London
Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress is more commonly known as the Tower. It was founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest and the White Tower that gives it its name was built by William the Conqueror. It was originally a grand palace and royal residence, but it became home to prisoners from 1100 until 1952 (the Kray Twins were there!). Fans of royal history will know that it played a huge role in Tudor history particularly, with every second person committing treason as the battle for the crown continued – it seemed everyone was sent ‘to the tower’ at some point! From the river you get to experience an element of the Tower that cannot be found elsewhere – the route to Traitors Gate. Many prisoners including Anne Boleyn and Thomas More were brought by barge along the Thames, passing under London Bridge, where the heads of recently executed prisoners were displayed on pikes, dipped in tar and boiled to preserve them from the elements. One of the most famous of these heads was William Wallace.
Named after its original owner Alexander Hay, who acquired the former brew house in 1651, this enclosed dock was once a delivery point for up to 80% of the dry produce imported to London came through here, earning it the nickname ‘larder of London’. The Great Fire of Southwark and the Second World War bombings tried hard to destroy it, but it was rebuilt as part of the regeneration of the Thames corridor and London Docklands. Impressively they decided to enclose the roof with a glass arch that runs the length of the building, similar to the Victorian railways of the time. They also decided to cover over the floor, but next time you are shopping in the boutiques or eating in the lovely forecourt, imagine the water beneath you and tea merchants battling to offload their cargoes!