As anyone who is familiar with the UK knows, sunny days are most certainly days we treasure. So when I found myself wandering about London in the midst of a week full of blue skies and sunshine, I opted to make the most of it by exploring the River Thames and some of London’s Southbank landmark sites.
The Thames weaves its way through the city and tells a tale that spans centuries. From historical events to cultural landmarks that shape London’s character, as you walk through the area, each step unveils a new layer of artistry and intrigue.
All About The River Thames
I started my journey by enjoying a lunchtime walk along the River Thames. At 215 miles long, the River Thames is the longest river in all of England and the second longest in the United Kingdom. The River Severn comes in first place at 220 miles long, just a mere 5 miles longer than the Thames.
It’s thought that the river’s name may come from the Sanskrit word, Tamas, which means dark. This would be appropriate as the Thame’s waters are frequently dark and rather murky. Another theory is that the river is named for the Roman word tam, which means wide, and isis, which means water. Any and all of these theories are interesting to ponder as they have some grain of truth to them.
The river provides a remarkable two thirds of London’s drinking water. It’s also one of the cleanest rivers in the world that flows through a major city. Humans, love that of course, but so do the 125 species of fish and 400 invertebrates that call the Thames home.
There are over 200 bridges spanning the river, with two of most famous being Tower Bridge and Millennium Bridge. The vast majority of these bridges, however, are just part of the everyday network people use to cross the river.
The Millennium Bridge
On my way to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank, I weaved past holidaymakers, school children and office workers in shirtsleeves and summer dresses as I walked across the Millennium Bridge. The ‘wobbly bridge,’ as it remains affectionately called by Londoners, received its moniker after a somewhat unsteady launch on 10 June 2000.
The bridge, which would later gain fame with a 2009 cameo appearance in ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,’ was always intended to be a bit wobbly, but the engineers got more than they bargained for. You see, engineers always leave a bit of sway to handle the enormous weight of the thousands of people who cross it each day. But it wasn’t until they did much more research that they discovered the true cause behind the Millennium’s extra wobble.
On the official day of opening, the footfall on the bridge was phenomenal and at any one time there were on average 2000 individuals walking and taking in the views.
Those on the southern and central spans felt the bridge begin to sway and twist in regular motions. Feeling unsteady, the pedestrians altered their gait to the same lateral rhythm as the bridge.
The adjusted footsteps just magnified the motion; the more it happened, the more people responded to the movement, and of course it just got worse and worse.
The more the bridge wobbled, the more people tried to keep themselves upright, and the more the bridge wobbled back in response! It’s a dizzying tale to be sure.
The wobbly wonder that is the Millennium Footbridge features 2 river piers and is made of 3 main sections of 81 metres (266ft), 144 metres (472ft) and 108 metres (354ft) (north to south) with a total structure length of 325 metres (1,066ft).
On 12 June 2000, just 2 days after opening, it was closed again. It then reopened, permanently on 27 February 2002.
It’s now perfectly stable and affords some lovely views downriver towards Tower Bridge, the City and the 72-storey skyscraper, the Shard – the tallest building in the UK and all of Western Europe, which dwarfs Southwark Cathedral and everything else nearby.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
The beautiful Globe Theatre that stands on the Southbank today is in fact the third that has stood in in its place. The first one opened in 1599 and was built by the company William Shakespeare worked for and partially owned, ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’.
It is believed that the first play Shakespeare wrote for the Globe was Julius Caesar, composed in the theatre’s inaugural year. It would go on to host Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and other famous works before it would burn down in 1613 when, during a performance of Henry VIII, a prop cannon would misfire, alighting the thatched roof and taking the whole building to the ground in less than 2 hours! A great tragedy, indeed.
The company rebuilt the Globe in just one year’s time, this time sporting a tiled roof, and continued to operate to the delight of many until 1642 when it was shut down by a parliamentary decree.
The current theatre you see today opened in 1997 after years of tireless campaigning by the Shakespeare’s Globe Trust. It’s a remarkable building, featuring an open air theatre that holds over 1500 people, and, ironically, sports the only thatched roof in all of London.
In addition to putting on plays and performances, the current Globe boasts a fascinating museum and exhibition space that ought not to be missed.
St Paul’s Cathedral
After exploring the Globe Theatre, I retraced my footsteps, heading back north across the Millenium Bridge until I reached the steps of another of London’s most recognisable landmarks: St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s is an Anglican cathedral and the seat of the Bishop of London. It’s a Grade I listed building and its dedication to Paul the Apostle dates back to 604 CE.
This 300 year old cathedral is an architectural marvel designed by the English architect, astronomer, mathematician and physicist Sir Christopher Wren. It towers over Ludgate Hill and the location where it stands has been a place of worship for over 1400 hundred years.
The site is said to have been a Roman temple to the goddess Diana, and it’s rumoured to have been a Pagan place of worship before that.
We do know that 4 other churches stood before the current one, the last of which perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Wren designed St Paul’s to replace it and construction took place between 1675 and 1710.
Because St Paul’s was built on the soft clay ground of the banks of the River Thames, Wren had to build an extensive foundation to compensate for the weight of this magnificent cathedral. As a result, the crypts beneath St Paul’s serve double duty. Not only do they serve as a final resting place for many historically significant individuals, including Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Joseph Turner, but they also keep the building from sinking or toppling over.
The church is known for hosting many historic state occasions, including the funerals of Nelson, Wellington, and Winston Churchill. It is also well known the world over as the wedding venue of King Charles III (then Prince Charles) to Lady Diana Spencer.
Visitors can access 5 levels of the Cathedral, including the ‘Whispering Gallery’ whose acoustics allow you to whisper along the wall of the gallery and still be heard, crystal clear, by someone standing on the opposite side, 30m / 112ft away!
In addition, you can visit the Stone and Golden Galleries atop the dome, which offer absolutely stunning panoramic views across London. It was here that I chose to end my fun-filled, sun-filled day exploring the River Thames and the Southbank, but I shall be back, and I hope you’ll consider a visit too.
Tips for Making the Most of Your Thames Southbank Adventure
Picnic by the Thames: Pack a picnic and find a spot along the riverbank to enjoy a leisurely lunch while people watching and taking in the views of the Thames.
Plan Ahead: Research opening hours as well as any current exhibitions at the Globe Theatre or St. Paul’s Cathedral to ensure an enjoyable visit.
Consider a Visit at Sunset: Visit the Millennium Bridge during sunset to witness the Thames bathed in the glow of the golden hour. It’s a truly magical experience.
Climb the Dome: Don’t miss the chance to climb to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral’s dome for incredible panoramic views of London.