Southwark Bridge – modest, elegant, quiet – but it hasn’t always been like this.
The first Southwark Bridge was designed by John Rennie, built in cast iron, and considered a bridge builders’ wonder, particularly its wide central span. The bridge was opened officially at midnight on 24 March 1819 – a modest opening apparently, and certainly nothing like the welcome Tower Bridge was given in 1894, some 75 years later.
A man who knew the old ‘Iron Bridge’ well was Charles Dickens, who lived in Southwark as a boy whilst his father was in the debtors’ prison there. He writes of both the bridge and the Thames in Little Dorrit.
“Thus they emerged upon the Iron Bridge, which was as quiet after the roaring streets as though it had been open country. The wind blew roughly, the wet squalls came rattling past them, skimming the pools on the road and pavement, and raining them down into the river. The clouds raced on furiously in the lead-Coloured sky, the smoke and mist raced after them, the dark tide ran fierce and strong in the same direction.” (Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens)
A decade or so after Tower Bridge appeared changes were planned for Southwark Bridge to help with traffic flow. In the end it was agreed that the original Iron Bridge should be taken down to make way for a new, wider, five arch bridge, made of steel not iron.
Work began on the new bridge in 1912, but was interrupted by the First World War. Finally, in 1921, it was completed and its elegant, five arch stretch remains to this day.
Today, just as in Charles Dickens’ time, it is a quiet bridge, with no significant route feeding into it or from it, and without the tramline it once had.
Look over it one direction and its green and yellow underscores the stubbily growth of the City in one direction.
And in the other it adds a flourish to St Pauls .
The day I walked Southwark Bridge, up and down its length, it felt empty. On one end was the grand silence of Vintners’ Place.
And on the opposite corner the vacant stare of the old Financial Times’ building.
There was plenty of life around the corner in Borough Market, with its steams of delicious aroma, but the market was further away than I thought, and so was Southwark Cathedral. In fact the cathedral, twinned by name at least, had pinned its heart in a different direction … on London Bridge I was told.
That surprise sent me back to the Internet, and there the name of Southwark Bridge took me straight to the disaster on the Thames thirty years ago when, in the dark early hours of an August morning a pleasure ship collided with a dredger and sank. Over fifty passengers lost their lives in the incident which happened between Southwark Bridge and Cannon Street Bridge.
The shock and tragedy of that event must have hit like torrent, but one positive has surfaced since and that is the setting up of four Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) stations on the Thames. The one that serves the area around the City is Tower Lifeboat Station, and already it is the busiest of all the RNLI stations, not just those on the Thames.
It takes only a few walks beside the river to get a sense of how hectic and dangerous it can be. There is a 7m rise and fall between its tides, and plenty of to and fro on its surface.
It is busy … not a surprise really as it is London’s greatest artery, and has been for centuries. Its pulse is the city’s, and its bridges vital to those who want to live in and around its waters … and Southwark Bridge is the calmest link of all.
The Building Bridges Not Borders Run started at Tower Bridge, and then went round to Southwark and onwards, on Sunday 27 October. Here’s a little more about the run:
“… The idea originally was a simple one: to create a wonderful city walk for anyone interested in “discovering” London. This led to the design of a half marathon route which crosses 12 bridges along the River Thames, starting at Tower Bridge on the edge of the City of London and finishing at Putney Bridge…”
The route can be broken down into 3 parts, in case anyone is put off by the distance!
Part 1: City – Tower Bridge, Southwark, Millennium and Blackfriars
Part 2: Central London – Waterloo Bridge, Jubilee, Westminster and Lambeth
Part 3: West London – Chelsea Bridge, Albert, Battersea and Putney
To find out more about the run please contact: email@example.com”
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019
How fascinating. I know the Bridge well having passed it many times on school trips to the Globe and the Tate modern It has some beautiful shields on the sides too
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Thank you – I am not sure where the shields are you mention but I did notice the tall, plain sentry-box like structures that extend upwards from the legs of the bridge, with round holes near the top. Apparently these were never finished, and I’m not aware of any plans to do so. At the moment they have lifebuoys inside them, but there would still be room for something else.