Ten years ago today, a new bridge across the Thames was opened in central London, between St Paul’s Cathedral in The City and the recently opened Tate Modern and Globe Theatre attractions in Southwark’s Bankside.
The media loved it: another public project that perfectly fit their millennium story, the story of hugely expensive and over-budget government initiated construction projects providing absurd and unloved attractions. Like the Dome, or the “Millennium Wheel”. Do you remember the ridiculed and ridiculous Millennium Wheel? Who thought a giant ferris wheel opposite parliament would be a good idea?
After the big tent and the crazy carnival ride, the press thought they’d seen it all. And then, six months later, The Wobbly Bridge was opened, over-budget — of course — and late. And, due to an engineering oversight, the bridge rocked. The 100,000 people per day walking upon it caused synchronous lateral excitation: people stepped, the bridge swayed in time to the steps, the people stepped in time to the sways, the bridge swayed further. So two days later, the bridge closed again. It was two years before the problem was fully fixed.
But none of the millennium projects ever did quite fit the farce invented by the newspapers. They succeeded in dampening enthusiasm somewhat for the Dome; but the ferris wheel proved so popular that it became it a permanent fixture, running near capacity every day for ten years. The bridge had its construction issues, but the story was quite the opposite of the badly managed public works project bailed out by the taxpayer: the bridge is built and maintained by Bridge House Trust — the 700 year old owner of Thames Bridges that has so much investment income that it can afford to fulfil its charter of maintaining London river crossings while building new ones and giving away a surplus to charity.
And the bridge has been a huge success with locals and tourists alike, perfectly placed between attractions, but also a convenient route between the transport hubs of the south bank and the employment hubs of the City. During rush hours it is saturated; tides flood across, several thousand people at a time. And its unique design has been a success: designed to keep a low profile and leave a clear view of the cathedral and the skyline, the short stocky concrete pillars and the gentle steel curves that cradle the deck are much loved.
But the most important and most loved feature of the bridge — another feature that was unique at the time that it opened — is that it is a pedestrian-only bridge. The Millennium Bridge represents a wider welcome improvement in the central London environment: a fight back against the anti-social practice of bringing cars into the centre of the city, the reclaiming of street space for people, and generally making it easier and more pleasant for people to get around and to enjoy the city — especially along the river. It’s a job that is very far from being complete, but after the Millennium Bridge opened, the twin pedestrian Jubilee bridges were constructed between Embankment and the South Bank Centre; and there has been massive expansion to the riverside paths. Progress seems to have been slowing lately. It seems like a good time to remind people what a difference the Millennium Bridge made, and how much still needs to be done to fix the streets of central London.
Where and when to shoot it? The obvious spot is on the south side, looking to St Paul’s. The bridge deck divides at the south side, such that you can shoot the bridge deck and pedestrians, but also the river and piers beneath at the same time. You will notice that Sir Christopher Wren made a mistake in designing St Paul’s: because it is not built perfectly perpendicular to the bridge, when one lines up the shot for symmetry, one finds that the dome of the cathedral appears slightly to the left of centre, rather than appearing exactly above the bridge piers. Other good spots to shoot are from the beaches on either bank at low tide, and also from the top of St Paul’s, if you can get in sufficiently early in the morning or late in the afternoon to prevent shooting directly into the sun. The cafe balcony in Tate Modern also looks down on the bridge. The view from Southwark Bridge rarely makes exciting photos. Shooting on the bridge itself would be difficult during the weekday rush hours.