04 May 2009

Thames Crossings 20: Waterloo Bridge

Downstream from the Hungerford/Jubilee Bridges amalgam is Waterloo Bridge. It opened fully in 1945 and was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the man behind our most iconic public toilets: those red kiosks that also contain landline phones.

The bridge stands on the top of an S-bend in the Thames which in a thousand years will be an oxbow lake, if it doesn't get submerged by melting icecaps first. It's frequently said to have been built by women, often in a tone of voice that implies it's your fault.

At rush hour it's chocker with cyclists of all types bombing across - dreadlocked couriers, clothespegs in lycra on road bikes, business suits on Bromptons, women in boots on sit-up-and-begs with baskets, scruffy and haggard cycling bloggers - but this is a bridge to stop and savour.

Not for the bridge itself. It has the sinuous beauty of a tin of spam and is the colour of February drizzle. But for the views. For this has the best sightseeing from any crossing in London, even any street-level viewpoint.

Upriver is a sweeping panorama, from left to right offering you the South Bank, the Eye, Jubilee Bridges, the Houses of Parliament, and the Savoy Hotel. Downriver is Somerset House, St Paul's, the Gherkin, the towers of Canary Wharf, the Oxo Tower, and the South Bank again.

By day it's thrilling; by night it's magical. And a bike, which lets you stop and snap, is the best way to enjoy it.

Critical Mass starts off from just underneath the bridge's south end, by the waterside; rides run from 7pm or so on the last Friday of every month.

There's an outdoor book market there all year in which you're more likely to find Kazuo Ishiguro than Jackie Collins, and during summer the area in front of the National Theatre has daily free outdoor entertainment, Watch This Space, on an astroturfed piazza – fabulous for picnics and meets with friends.

Most of the South Bank's foyers are open all the time, often with free entertainment and always with bars and eating opportunities. There are lots of restaurants and shops too. By night this can also be a magical place, in the sense that it'll make your money disappear.

From here on the north bank it's along busy Embankment; you can side-step some of it on a side-road, and perhaps explore quiet Oxbridge-college-like Middle Temple as you do. On the south side you can ride half the way and push the rest along the promenade; just past the Oxo Tower turn right then left to escape the underpass. Either way it's under half a mile to Blackfriars Bridge.

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