Travel Report: Westminster Bridge, London.
Westminster Bridge, London.
It had been a long time since I last felt the fresh air of the Thames on my face from Westminster Bridge. In fact, I believe the last time I’d been here was around fourteen years ago. That had been a hectic afternoon guiding Belgian English language students around Central London. Thus I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to stop, take stock and fully appreciate the old structure.
Inspired by my recent afternoon diving into the history of Tower Bridge, I resolved to do the same with this iconic handsome green arch bridge. Unfortunately, I hadn’t picked a great day for it. Indeed by the time I emerged from Westminster Tube Station and strode towards the bridge, I found myself at the mercy of some truly evil dark clouds.
The Westminster Bridge we see today dates back to 1862. It replaced a 15-arch structure built in 1750 that historians consider a masterpiece of its time. In 1802 William Wordsmith wrote a sonnet on the bridge in which he declared his love for London and The River Thames. He called it Composed upon Westminster Bridge. Sadly that original bridge began to dramatically subside and became too expensive to maintain.
“The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
Today’s Westminster Bridge is a seven-arch cast-iron creation designed by the engineer Thomas Page with gothic wrought-iron detailing by Charles Barry. You may remember Barry from my article on Parliament Square.
After a twelve year construction project the new bridge opened on the 24th of May 1862. This happened to be Queen Victoria’s 45th birthday! However, the Queen didn’t actually attend the event because she was still in mourning over the death of Prince Albert three years earlier.
The bridge takes its name from the borough of Westminster in which it sits. And of course after the Palace of Westminster which it overlooks. Even on such a gloomy day it was impossible to deny the building’s majesty and the scope of its history.
Interestingly, the bridge’s distinctive green colour is a nod to Westminster Palace, namely the leather seats in The House of Commons.
Elsewhere, the bridge features Victoria and Albert’s coats of arms. Moreover, there is a further coat of arms belonging to Henry John Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, who was Prime Minister at the time of the bridge’s completion.
Westminster Bridge, London.
Keen to give my readers an altogether brighter look at Westminster Bridge and its fine views, I returned a few days later to complete my explorations. This was certainly much better, with a blueish sky, fluffy clouds and even brief, sporadic appearances from none other than the sun!
Predictably, the good weather resulted in increased foot traffic on that second visit. But boy did everything look enriched, particularly the palace which seemed transformed.
Believe it or not that featureless column in the background (below) is Elizabeth Tower, home to the world famous clock and bell, Big Ben.
Back then the tower was two years into an ambitious five year, £80 million refurbishment project. Of course I had to go for a look. Almost entirely covered in a protective scaffolding and netting, it wasn’t a pretty sight. Though you could at least see the clock face. The huge project, which has involved repairs, cleaning, repainting and the addition of an elevator, is due for completion in 2022.
Back on the bridge and I made it all the way down the western side for a fuller view of the sprawling palace and the steady flow of the Thames.
Adventures in London.
This is also the spot for your kitschy London souvenir needs. Indeed there are a handful of large stalls seemingly bursting at the seams with Union Jack bags, postcards, fridge magnets, football scarves, t-shirts, Paddington Bear toys and miniature red telephone boxes. Whenever I see this stuff I’m always amazed by how pricy it is. But do keep in mind that this particular stall owner throws in his charmlessness for free.
Making my way across the road to the other side of the bridge and there were fine views across London’s Southbank. The massive London Eye dominates what is generally considered to be London’s cultural centre. A walk down here leads visitors to The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal National Theatre, Gabriel Wharf, The London Studios and the IMAX Super Cinema.
The atmosphere that afternoon was positively carefree. Couples stopped to take photographs. Children waved down to the passengers of a city cruise. A couple of red double decker buses rumbled by, while a pair of jolly looking cyclists wobbled past. Power to them, not sure you’d catch me biking on Westminster Bridge.
It was hard to imagine the scenes of horror that unfolded here just a few years earlier on the 22nd of March 2017. This was when a 52 year old man, Khalid Masood, drove his car onto the pavement killing 4 people and injuring 50.
Westminster Bridge, London.
He subsequently crashed the car into the perimeter fence of the palace grounds and proceeded on foot into the New Palace Yard where he stabbed and killed a police officer. Soon after a policeman shot and killed Masood.
Later, investigators discovered a text message in which Masood said the killing spree would be revenge for The UK’s role in military campaigns across The Middle East According to various news reports online, a memorial plaque to the victims should be unveiled in the middle of the bridge by early 2022.
Finally, as with so many spots around Westminster, the bridge is a popular hang out for protestors and preachers. That day, as I set off on the long walk to Abbey Road, I passed a man warning me that Jesus was coming. That I needed to repent and so forth. He was perfectly calm and smiley about it, with not a trace of fire and brimstone to his words.
The placard he was holding is a near permanent fixture on Westminster Bridge. Search for it on Google and you’ll see dozens of images where the sign is manned by different preachers. Good luck to them.
For more on my home city, why not delve through my many reports from across London.
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