It’s early morning in the city of London, and the sun’s illuminating Tower Bridge’s turrets. Even just by reflection, the silhouette of this famous bridge is immediately recognizable.
Passersby jostle to use the walkway to get to work. Tourists pose for photographs, stretching to get both towers in their selfie.
If they stick around long enough, they’ll see the bridge do its most famous trick, splitting in two to let ships pass by.
London’s defined by the curving River Thames, the famous tributary which weaves through the city center and into the countryside beyond, defining the landscape and splitting the city in two.
Connecting the dual halves of the city are a series of bridges, from the famous – Tower Bridge, of course, and the Millennium Bridge, star of the “Harry Potter” movies – to lesser known, local landmarks.
So how did bridges become so much a part of London’s DNA?
According to former City of London Planning Officer Peter Wynne Rees, it’s all down to: “a few boatloads of drunken, sex-starved Roman soldiers [who] sailed up the Thames and ran aground.”
Realizing the city had the potential to be a trade hub, the Romans built the city’s first bridge over a low point in the waterway: the first London Bridge.
In the two millennia since, London Bridge has been rebuilt several times and is now joined by 32 other bridges dotted along the Thames. But which bridge is which? And which is worth a visit?
Read on for our complete guide to London’s bridges – and to learn some secrets along the way.
London dwellers frequently confuse Tower Bridge – the aforementioned Victorian Gothic structure – with the older London Bridge popularized by the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.”
But Tower Bridge has never been in danger of collapse, whereas London Bridge has gone through several regenerations over the years.
It’s believed that the early Roman pontoon fell into disrepair once the Romans left Britain. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror claimed the throne of England, the bridge got rebuilt and destroyed a couple of times.
In 1209, the first long-lasting bridge was erected – building it took three decades.
It’s this medieval bridge that’s the likely inspiration for the nursery rhyme. The viaduct was at a narrow point of the river, so large volume of water put pressure on it. The arches, meanwhile, weren’t evenly spread out.
Plus, this London Bridge was over-populated, home to multiple houses and buildings – and only traversable if a toll was paid.
“It even had spikes along the end, where the heads of malefactors who’d been beheaded for treason were placed on London Bridge, as a warning for people coming into the City of London,” Wynne Rees tells CNN Travel.
Due to this wealth of activity, it’s no surprise London Bridge was often at risk of collapse.
But since this severed-head-medieval-edition, London Bridge has had a few further incarnations.