Wander over some of the many bridges crossing the Thames, including famous bridges such as London Bridge, Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge.
This free self-guided London walk follows parts of the Thames Path and takes you along the river front on both sides where accessible.
It was written in April 2008 and updated in March 2014.
The walk starts from Westminster tube station.
on arrival at Westminster station, exit opposite Big Ben and turn left towards the river. Cross Westminster bridge and turn left towards London Eye, along the riverfront
The current Westminster Bridge was opened in 1862 to replace an earlier bridge that dated from 1750.
There had been a ford at low tide here since Roman times and many historians believe that the Romans used to wade cross the river near this point. They think the actual crossing point was on the other side of Westminster Bridge, in front of St Thomas’ Hospital. In 1909, the remains of a Roman boat were discovered nearby.
Did You Know?
The name, Thames, pre-dates both the Romans and the Celts. It was originally spelt Tames but a Dutch map-maker inserted the letter “h” by mistake in the sixteenth century and the error has remained ever since.
walk past the London Eye and along the riverfront towards Waterloo bridge, passing under the Hungerford bridge (a pedestrian and railway bridge)
A popular tourist attraction, the London Eye is a ferris wheel with large pods, providing great views of London.
The wheel was meant to be operational in time for the millenium celebrations – unfortunately for technical reasons, it wasn’t open until mid 2000.
The Hungerford bridge is also known as Charing Cross Railway bridge. Before Charing Cross station was built across the river, the site was occupied by the Hungerford market, established by the Earl of Hungerford in 1692.
Brunel built a suspension bridge across the river to provide pedestrian access to the market in 1845 but when the railway company took over the market site, the bridge was dismantled and taken to Bristol to become the Clifton Suspension bridge. There was a public outcry at the loss of pedestrian access across the river and the railway company was forced to build a pedestrian footpath alongside the railway bridge.
Did You Know?
Look across the river to the wall on the opposite side. You will see a number of lions’ heads facing the river, with mooring rings hanging from their mouths. They are part of London’s flood warning system and every policeman on duty near the river keeps an eye on them.
Although the Thames Barrier has reduced the risk, the phrase “When the lions drink, London’s in danger” is still true. If the water reaches the lions’ mouths, the Thames is at danger level and the tube system and all Thames tunnels would be closed.
continue along the riverfront to Waterloo bridge, passing the Festival Pier and South Bank Centre.
The South Bank Centre
The South Bank Centre (opposite Festival Pier) was built between 1951 and 1976 by the London County Council for the Festival of Britain in an attempt to revitalise the area. It comprises a number of buildings linked by overhead walkways.
These buildings include the Royal Festival Hall (built on the site of the Red Lion brewery), Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the National Film Theatre. The Royal Festival Hall was the first post-war building to receive a Grade I Listing.
The world renowned National Theatre is also based here. Although many performances charge admission, there are often free exhibitions and events happening in the foyers of the various buildings within the centre.
Did You Know?
This part of the walk follows the Silver Jubilee walkway, which is a circular walking trail extending from Buckingham Palace in the west to the British Library in the north, St Katherine’s Dock (near the Tower of London) in the east and along the south bank. It was originally created in 1977 to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
walk underneath Waterloo bridge, and immediately turn right and go up the stairs alongside it. Cross Waterloo bridge to the north side of the river.
The original bridge on this site was opened in 1817 and was named to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s famous victory over Bonaparte.
The bridge fell into ruin and was closed in 1923 before being re-built, mostly by women (as many men were fighting in Europe), during the war years. It was re-opened in 1945.
Did You Know?
Shipping has to be warned whenever a bridge is under repair and this is done by dangling a bale of hay on a rope below the centre span. The origin of this is unclear but every bridge follows this custom and the custom dates to Roman times.
just after you cross the river, go down the set of stairs to your right signposted Somerset House. You will emerge at street level opposite the RNLI pier.
Turn left and continue east along Victoria Embankment, passing Somerset House, Temple tube station and the gated area of Temple (gardens and old buildings) on your left.
The area broadly between Temple tube station and Blackfriars bridge facing the riverfront is known as Temple, which includes two of the four Inns of Court: the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple.
The name, Temple, derives from the Order of the Knights Templar, a chivalrous order established in 1118 for the purpose of protecting pilgrims. (You may know of them as the knights who wore white tunics with red crosses on them.) In 1162, the group built their first church and houses nearby, on the banks of the Thames.
When the Templars were discredited in the 14th century, their property was leased to lawyers who used it as a hostel. They continued as tenants until Henry VIII appropriated the property.
In 1608, James I gave the freehold of the “inns” to the lawyers, on the condition they maintained it forever.
Today, barristers continue to have their offices (known as chambers) here, in addition to training and practising in the area.
The church in the grounds of Temple is the Templars’ Church, which was built in the 12th century (though little of the original building remains). Secret initiation ceremonies took place within its crypt and there are 13th century effigies of the Knights Templar in the nave.
Did You Know?
In the nineteenth century, ships were travelling across the Atlantic heavily overloaded and owners were claiming compensation for them when they sank.
To deal with this, Samuel Plimsoll, a British MP, pursuaded Parliament to order every British ship to have lines marked on its hull to show how heavily it can be loaded. These lines became known as the Plimsoll Lines and you may still see them painted, with letters beside them, on ships today. The letters indicate Winter North Atlantic (WNA) and Summer North Atlantic (SNA).
Just after Temple, cross the road to the riverside and continue ahead to Blackfriars bridge.
Do not go along the ramp under Blackfriars bridge – instead, remain at street level and turn right to cross the river. Once over the bridge, you should see a pub called Doggetts ahead of you on your right. Go down the steps beside the pub and turn right, along the river.
Blackfriars Bridge was opened in 1869 by Queen Victoria, who was so unpopular at the time that she was heckled by the crowds at the opening.
The bridge replaced an earlier one that was built in 1769. This bridge was originally named after William Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister. However, the title was so unpopular that its name was soon changed to that of the Black Friars, an order of monks that settled in London in 1279.
Parallel to the bridge ran a rail bridge and you can still see the remains of it – the red columns in the river and the insignia of the railway company.
In 1982, the body of a top Italian banker known as “God’s Banker” due to his links with the Vatican was found hanging under Blackfriars bridge.
His death was originally treated as suicide, based on the fact that he had been stripped of his authority as head of Italy’s largest private bank only a week earlier following the discovery of a £400 million black hole in the bank’s accounts.
However, in 2002 forensic experts concluded that the banker had been murdered.
Did You Know?
From the time of the Romans, there had only been one bridge in London – London Bridge.
It was made of wood and in 1014, Ethelred and Olaf of Norway burnt the bridge to divide the Danish forces on either bank. This was the origin of the phrase “London Bridge is falling down”.
follow the riverfront path to the Tate Modern, passing the Founders Arms pub
The Tate Modern opened in May 2000 in the old Bankside Power Station, which was built in 1963 and generated power until 1981. Gas and electricity had been generated on or near the site for over a century – it provided the first public supply of electricity for the City of London.
It is the UK’s largest museum of modern art and its permanent collection includes works by Picasso, Warhol and Dali. Admission is free except to special exhibitions.
You can catch a boat from here to visit its sister gallery, Tate Britain, on Millbank.
The Millennium Bridge, the first new footbridge to be built across the Thames for over 100 years, crosses the river in front of the Tate Modern.
This footbridge became known locally as the “Wobbly Bridge” when it was first opened in May 2000 as it was closed again a few weeks later due to its instability.
It finally opened again in March 2002.
Did You Know?
Because London bridge was the only bridge across the river in central London for many years, Londoners were dependent on watermen and boatmen to ferry passengers and freight across the river.
It was because of this dependence on the river that people in the East End still use the phrase “up West” for the West End of London, since it is upstream from the City.
just after the Tate Modern, cross the pedestrian footbridge in front of you (the Millennium bridge) and continue straight ahead to St Pauls.
St Paul’s was founded in 604. However, the present building, the fifth on the site, dates from 1675. It is the second largest cathedral in the world, after St Peter’s in Rome.
Construction did not start until 10 years after the Great Fire, which destroyed the previous structure. This earlier building, begun in 1087, took 200 years to build and was even bigger than the present building, which took 35 years to complete.
The cathedral is the most famous work from London’s greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren (who is buried in it.) However, the building is not exactly to the Royal-approved design. Wren submitted 3 different designs for it before his 4th version was eventually agreed. He then assembled large screens around the construction site to hide development, and proceeded to build the cathedral to a design different again from that which had been approved.
Did You Know?
Lord Nelson, who is buried at St Pauls, had a premonition that he would die at sea and so he had his coffin made from the mast of a French warship. The coffin lies inside an enormous sarcophagus which was created 300 years before Nelson was born.
The sarcophagus was commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey in 1521 for his own use but was confiscated by Henry VIII in 1529. It was stored at Windsor but then forgotten, only to be rediscovered in 1804 – just in time for Nelson’s burial.
Return towards the Millenium Bridge and go down the stairs, then head left along the riverside towards the Shard. (The next part of the walk is not on the riverside.) Turn left at Broken Wharf House, following the Riverside Walk East signs. Turn right at High Timber Street, then right again after Queen’s Quay. Walk down to the riverside and follow the path.
Soon, you have the choice of either going up the steps to cross Southwark Bridge, or to follow Fruiterer’s passage, the Thames Path, go through a tunnel and cross London Bridge.
IF YOU CROSSED SOUTHWARK BRIDGE
On the south side of the river, take the steps on your left down to the riverside. Continue right, along the riverfront towards Shakespeare’s Globe.
Largely thanks to the efforts of the American filmmaker, Sam Wanamaker, the new Globe theatre was opened to the public in 1997. It has been re-built as close as possible to the original theatre’s design, from the thatched roof to the wooden bench seating.
The original Globe Theatre was built not far from this site, in 1598. Shakespeare and his fellow actors brought it over from the other side of the Thames (Shoreditch) in pieces and reassembled it on bankside since land rent was cheaper.
Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays were performed in the original theatre on bankside, including Julius Caesar (believed to be the first play performed here), Henry V, Hamlet and Macbeth. The plays attracted lively audiences and Elizabeth I was often amongst them.
In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, the theatre’s thatch caught fire during the firing of a real cannon. The theatre burnt down within half an hour and was re-built the following year. In the 1640’s it was finally closed down and demolished by the Puritans.
The iron gates which lead into the new theatre’s grounds contain sculptures of many animals from Shakespeare’s various plays.
Southwark bridge was also known as the Iron Bridge, to contrast it with the Stone Bridge (London bridge, further downstream). It was originally built in 1819 and re-built in 1921.
Cannon Street Railway Bridge was opened in 1866.
Did You Know?
Between Southwark Bridge and the Cannon Street railway bridge, the riverboat “Marchioness” was hit by a dredger in August, 1989. The boat sank within 2 minutes and 51 people drowned. There is a memorial in Southwark Cathedral to those who died.
continue along the riverfront, passing the Anchor Tavern, Cannon Street railway bridge and Clink Prison
Winchester Palace and the Clink Prison
Winchester Palace was the London home of the bishops of Winchester from the 1140s until 1626. The Bishop owned most of the land in Bankside and licensed the area’s brothels in 1161 as the area was outside the control of the City of London (the prostitutes were known as Winchester Geese.) The only remaining part of the palace is the Rose Window.
First mentioned in 1509, the Clink prison began as a small prison attached to the palace and was used merely to maintain order in the Bishop’s brothels. It existed as a prison until 1745 and was destroyed in 1780, to be replaced by Victorian warehouses.
However, it soon became useful for other purposes. During the early years, religious prisoners were held in it prior to being burnt at the stake or hanged and during later years it became a debtor’s prison. Prisoners were not fed by the wardens while in jail : they had to beg passers-by for food.
The prison lay partly below the level of the Thames and between the river and a sewer, and conditions were therefore particularly bad, especially during high tide.
You can tour the Clink museum and see examples of crime and punishment, though nothing of the original prison remains.
Did You Know?
For nearly 700 years, London bridge was the only bridge across the Thames. The next bridge to be built was at Putney – to the west – in 1729.
continue to the end of Clink Street, passing the Golden Hinde on your left. When you reach a path, turn left, and go into the grounds of Southwark Cathedral (through the gate opposite Borough Market and Winchester Walk.)
There has been a church on the site of Southwark Cathedral for over one thousand years and the current building is the oldest building in Southwark. The original church was founded by St Swithun in 860 and in the twelfth century it was known as the Church of St Mary Overie (“Overie” meaning “over the water”). Inside the church there are two rounded Norman arches that survived the fire of 1213.
In 1616, when most of London’s theatres were in its vicinity, the then chaplain denounced those who “dishonour God by penning and acting in plays”. Ironically, William Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, who was an actor, is buried in the church. And there is a statue of Shakespeare alongside a tablet dedicated to Sam Wanamaker, founder of the present Globe theatre.
The church only became a Cathedral in 1905.
Until 1729, London Bridge (next to the Cathedral) was the only bridge over the river. The original bridge was built by the Romans as a bridge of boats and this was replaced by various wooden bridges that were in use until 1176, when a stone bridge was built on the site. The stone bridge was in use for over 600 years and became one of the wonders of the medieval world as it spanned what was at the time a fierce tidal river. The bridge had houses (up to seven floors high), shops and a church on it, similar to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
The stone bridge was replaced in 1831 by a granite bridge as it was becoming a hazard to boats navigating the river. This bridge was in turn replaced by the present, less spectacular bridge which was opened in 1973, and the granite bridge was reconstructed in Arizona, USA. (Legend has it that the Americans who bought it thought it wasTower Bridge.)
Did You Know?
During medieval times, the decapitated heads of “traitors”, including in 1305, the head of Braveheart (William Wallace) were displayed on spikes on the gates at either end of London Bridge.
exit Southwark Cathedral through the same gates and turn right, then walk around the side of the Cathedral and under London Bridge.
IF YOU CROSSED LONDON BRIDGE
at the end of the bridge, walk down the stairs on the right, then walk under London Bridge.
Walk along Tooley street and back through to the riverfront, then turn right. Continue until you reach Hays Galleria.
Hays Galleria, Hays Wharf and HMS Belfast
Hays Galleria is a shopping complex which was built in the 1980’s on the site of the old Hays Wharf area.
Hays Wharf was a trading wharf from 1710 to 1969, running along the riverfront from London bridge to Tower bridge. It was used to trade and store food products bought and sold at nearby Borough Market.
HMS Belfast is a British warship which saw service in the Second World War and the Korean War. It is now a museum ship permanently docked on the Thames.
Did You Know?
Charles Dickens lived and worked near the Thames for much of his life. He refers to the river in many of his novels such as Our Mutual Friend, where the story opens with a boat floating between the Iron bridge (Southwark) and the Stone bridge (London.)
continue past HMS Belfast and along the riverfront to Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge was built in 1894 and needs to be raised to enable tall ships to pass under it. Until 1976, this was performed by steam-driven Victorian hydraulic machines. It is often mistakenly thought to be London Bridge by tourists.
You can travel to the top of Tower Bridge and also see the Victorian engine room. (Admission charge).
The Tower of London (across the river) is the most popular tourist attraction in London and one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture anywhere in the world. It is steeped in both history and scandal.
It was begun by William I around 1066 and built deliberately just outside the City boundary to warn potential troublemakers. It was then extended by a number of monarchs until Edward I, and has been a palace, prison, menagerie, place of execution and stronghold for the crown jewels.
Famous occupants have included Sir Francis Drake, Anne Boleyn (executed by sword), Sir Walter Raleigh and Rudolph Hess during the second world war.
The tower is protected by forty Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) and eight flightless ravens, whose departure, legend claims, would indicate the downfall of England. The Beefeaters live on site and their dogs and cats are buried in a pet cemetery within the moat of the Tower.
The small “exits” at the bottom of the tower are medieval drainage outlets.
Did You Know?
Many Tudor prisoners such as Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I were brought to the Tower by boat and entered it through the Traitors’ Gate, a gate you may be able to see across the river at water level. As they passed along the Thames under London bridge, they would have seen the heads of other executed prisoners displayed on spikes.
cross Tower Bridge to the north side.
You have now completed this walk …… I hope you enjoyed it
continue past the Tower of London to Tower Hill tube station