Bridging the gap
London Bridge – not to be confused with the more extravagant Tower Bridge – has perhaps the richest history of any bridge in London.
Nearly 2000 years ago, the Romans constructed a succession of wooden crossings over the river and established the settlement called Londinium which became the Roman-British capital. With the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, this early incarnation of our bridge fell into disrepair; it was rebuilt some time during the 9th or 10th centuries, possibly by Alfred the Great or Ethelred the Unready, and played an important role in conflicts with the Danish invaders.
Throughout the early years following the Norman conquest of England the bridge was destroyed - by a tornado in 1091, and a fire in 1136 - and was rebuilt and strengthened with timber a number of times. Eventually, Henry II had it rebuilt in stone and created a special guild known as the Brethren of the Bridge to be responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. This arched structure had a drawbridge to allow large vessels to pass through, defensive gates at each end, and a chapel in the centre dedicated to the martyr Thomas Becket. Within a few years many shops and houses took up residence there and flourished. By the year 1500 there were about 200 buildings on the Bridge, making it look more like a floating town between London and Southwark.
Murders and martyrs
From the reign of Edward I until the reinstatement of King Charles in 1660, the south gate of the Bridge gruesomely displayed the spiked heads of executed criminals. The Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace was the first head to be placed there.
This medieval bridge remained in use for an impressive 622 years until it was deemed necessary to rebuild in the 19th century. The resulting ‘New Bridge’ was then packed up and sold in sections to an American oil and motor tycoon in 1968, after it was decided that the location needed to change when the bridge started sinking. It remains in use in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to this day. The London Bridge we see now, a concrete and steel box girder construction, was opened in 1973 and is about 30 meters upstream from the original location.
Tombs and restaurants
One of the best features the Bridge has to offer is ‘The London Bridge Experience’. This celebrated attraction gives tourists the history of the Bridge and takes you through the eerie hidden tunnels where actors will impersonate historical figures like the Keeper of Heads, who was responsible for displaying traitors’ heads on spikes during medieval times. This unique tour also takes you through the tombs underneath London. Terrifying ghouls and creeps of all kinds will jump out at you as you make your way through the underground labyrinth. The 19th century Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is also located just by the bridge and is an interesting attraction for anyone keen on the history of modern surgery.
Borough Market on Bankside is open Wednesday to Sunday and is always buzzing with people. It is the oldest food market in this ancient city, where you can find the best fresh produce from around the country, including cakes, cheeses, ciders, vegetables, meat and fish. There are also fantastic English restaurants close by such as Londinium, Roast, and Blueprint Café, which boasts excellent views.
Many of the most famous buildings on the London skyline are accessible from London Bridge, including the Shard, a pyramidal glass structure which is the tallest building in Western Europe. Visitors to the Shard can climb to the top floors for exceptional views over London in all directions. Close by you can also find Southwark Cathedral, the oldest Gothic church in London, and celebrated wine-tasting centre Vinopolis.