An Architectural Walk by London’s Riverside

London Tower Bridge Southbank History

South Bank: Tower Bridge to Southwark Bridge

This year we started work on mapping out and illustrating the abundance of architecture along London’s riverside from Tower Bridge to the Houses of Parliament. It’s an idea I’d had for a while, as I feel the River Thames is very much the heart and soul of the city. I cross Waterloo Bridge every day and never tire of the view, day or night. It’s one of the few places in London where you enjoy such a wide, open vista. 

I’m fascinated by the history and heritage of this landscape. The architecture along the banks of the River Thames reflects the evolution in changing lifestyles, historic events, technology and design. Victorian feats of engineering lay side-by-side with the latest in 21st century architectural design. So I decided to include the history of these buildings within the map. Only once I’d started, did I realise quite how big a project I’d taken on!

The finished design is a London map like no other! This concertina map illustrates all the buildings along the north and south banks of the river. The heritage of the buildings are plotted on the reverse, mapping the city’s origins as a strategic Roman port to today’s bustling cultural destination. It can be used as a walking guide, a travel souvenir or a framed memento of this great city.

London Thames History map

Our finished map!

In a series of posts, I wanted to share some of the fascinating facts that I have dug up while researching our map. First up, we’ll take a short walk on the south bank from Tower Bridge towards Southwark Bridge.

Starting at the left of our map is the iconic Tower Bridge, built 1894 in response to East London's increasing commercial development and population. The design of the new crossing was opened to public competition, which received over 50 submissions. City architect Sir Horace Jones won the commission. His combined bascule bridge took more than eight years and 11,000 tons of steel to construct. It is the only bridge over the River Thames that can be raised to allow ships to pass. Today it still serves as a vital crossing point, with some 40,000 people travelling over it daily.

London Tower Bridge during Construction

Tower Bridge during construction (Image source:

In complete contrast to Tower Bridge, the next building marked on our map, City Hall, is a great example of how architectural design has evolved over the centuries. Completed in 2002, the shape of the building has been designed for optimum energy performance, maximising shade and minimising the surface area exposed to direct sunlight. City Hall uses only a quarter of the energy consumed by a typical air-conditioned London office building. 

London City Hall Architecture history

London City Hall (image credit)

Some of my favourite buildings along the river are the former industrial warehouses such as Hay’s Galleria (formally Hays Wharf) and Pickfords Wharf. Right up until the late 1960s, the Thames was a busy working river and major trading hub, home to a rich variety of commercial life. Hays Wharf was one of the chief delivery points for ships bringing tea into the city. In its heyday, 80% of the dry produce imported to London passed through the wharf, earning it the nickname the ‘Larder of London'. Dock use declined after sea containers came into use and during the 1970s and 80s many docks closed. As trading sharply declined, the once bustling wharfs have been turned into offices, shops and desirable apartment blocks. London Bridge Hospital, for example, was formerly Chamberlain’s Wharf, a warehouse used during the Victorian era for storing tea and goods from the Baltic. It was converted into a private hospital in 1986.

Hays Wharf and South bank history

Left: Hays Wharf 1938 (image source) | Right: Aerial view of docks 1920 (image source) 

Next to the former wharves at London Bridge is the Shard, one of the latest skyscrapers to join the city’s skyline, and the tallest in the UK. Standing at just over 309 metres, it is so tall, we couldn’t fit it to scale on our map! Instead, we have left you to imagine its iconic jagged top reaching up into the clouds. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the form of the Shard was inspired by the masts of ships that once anchored on the Thames. The exterior is made from 11,000 glass panels, gently inclined inwards and rising up to its point. If you’ve ever wondered how they construct such a tall building, watch this delightfully engaging (if somewhat vertiginous!) BBC video from 2011.

In contrast to the glass-adorned Shard is one of London’s oldest Gothic buildings, Southwark Cathedral. The construction of the new London Bridge in 1831 saw the church threatened with demolition. Fortunately the decision was taken to restore it instead and the present building retains the basic form of the Gothic structure built between 1220 and 1420, although the nave is a late 19th century reconstruction. The exact origins of the church remain a mystery but it is believed the site has been a place of worship for over a thousand years. 

Panoramic view South Bank Architecture

Panoramic view from Southwark Cathedral (image source)

The cobbled streets from the Cathedral take you to The Golden Hinde, a full-sized reconstruction of the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the globe between 1577 and 1580. Built in the 1970s, the replica ship toured the world before settling at St Mary Overie Dock as an educational ship-museum. Walk on and you reach The Anchor, a place for a perfect historic pit stop. For 800 years a tavern has stood on this site and has been a favourite drinking hole for river pirates and smugglers! It is also the sole survivor of London’s riverside inns from Shakespeare’s time. 

We end today’s tour at Southwark Bridge, which in contrast to Tower Bridge is one of the least popular bridges on the river. Formerly known as Queen Street Bridge, it opened in 1819 to relieve heavy traffic on the neighbouring bridges. But as one of the few bridges on the River Thames to levy a toll, it never proved popular with drivers. Despite becoming toll free in 1864, Southwark Bridge still has the least traffic of any bridge in central London.

History of southwark bridge

Southwark Bridge 1825  from 'The Natural and Artifical Wonders of the United Kingdom' (image source)

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