A301, Waterloo Bridge, WC2 to SE1
For me, one of the most iconic scenes of London is to be seen from Waterloo Bridge at night. The bridge, strategically positioned on a bend of the river, offers a panoramic view of the city with all the famous sights and, regrettably, some of the modern excrescences lit up. It is the best vantage point to get an appreciation of the size and scale of London and made the trudge across it to catch my train to leafy suburbia a pleasure.
The bridge runs from Lancaster Place on the northern bank to the South Bank where the National Film Theatre and Queen Elizabeth Hall are to be found and in the series of London bridges lies between Blackfriars Bridge to its east and Hungerford to its west. It takes its name from the battle of Waterloo which gives a clue to its age. Bridges, relatively speaking, are a fairly recent phenomenon across the capital’s main river, reflecting the burgeoning population and the creeping of the city westwards. Save for London bridge, before the 19th century, the easiest way to cross the Thames was by boat.
The first bridge on the site was opened in 1817 as a private venture by the Strand Bridge Company and to use it you had to pay a toll. The bridge was 2,456 feet long and was made of granite with nine arches. Some Londoners soon found that the streets weren’t paved with gold and by the 1840s Waterloo Bridge had become the prime spot for suicides, a fact immortalised by Thomas Hood in his poem about the suicide of a prostitute, The Bridge of Sighs. Samuel Gilbert Scott’s death in 1841 was less intentional, the American daredevil hanging himself when his stunt went wrong.
By 1878 the bridge was taken out of private ownership and the toll system was abolished. The demolition of the old London Bridge in the 1880s which increased the flow of the Thames revealed some structural defects in the piers of Waterloo Bridge. Its days were numbered. Declared unsafe in 1924 and demolished in 1937, the decision was made to build a new bridge in 1939. The choice of designer, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, was an odd one because he was no engineer and the design he came up with was difficult to implement. The structure was clad in Portland Stone which cleans itself when it rains and each pier of the bridge had a number of jacks which could be used to level the bridge to prevent damage from scouring. It is 24 metres wide with three spans of 75m between two of 72m.
The bridge was partially opened on 11th March 1942 and work was completed in 1945. There are two fascinating facts about its construction – firstly, a large proportion of the workforce were female – there was a war on, don’t you know? – and to this day the bridge is known as the Ladies’ Bridge and, secondly, it was the only Thames bridge to have been damaged by German bombers.
The foundation stone for the modern bridge was cut out of a stone from the first and some of the original material was sent to, doubtless, grateful parts of the Commonwealth. Two of the stones are to be found in the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Canberra and some in a monument to Paddy the Wanderer (a dog) in Wellington. The current bridge received Grade II listed status in 1981.