Notes on Lambeth Bridge

Among the many bridges that keep London stitched together, Lambeth Bridge is one of my favourites.
It’s the one I see most often, in all weathers and in all moods.

Day and night, the Thames beneath is in near-constant movement, lively or quiet, tides high and low and with ever changing lights and reflections.

Though there was a ferry crossing point here for many years connecting Lambeth Palace to the Westminster side of the river, it wasn’t until 1862, after much pressure, that the first Lambeth Bridge was built. Sadly, in competition with the new Westminster Bridge completed in the same year, it was not a success either commercially or aesthetically.

In his “Dictionary of the Thames” Charles Dickens Jr. wrote that “Lambeth Bridge is perhaps, on the whole, the ugliest ever built.” And a comment in the Observer on May 15, 1910 was equally unflattering “It has rightly been described as ‘the work of an engineer insufficiently experienced in bridge design.” And it was that which led to its downfall. It was built on the cheap, badly finished, susceptible to rust, too narrow, and the hoped for profits from the crossing toll never materialised. Safety eventually became a serious concern and it was closed to traffic in 1910, though pedestrians could still cross the river there.

Plans to build a new bridge in its place were shelved during the First World War and then delayed, so it wasn’t until July 19th, 1932 that construction of the bridge we know now was finished and officially opened by King George V. A journalist from The Manchester Guardian felt “a Parisian glitter in the air” and the crowds, including Lambeth and Westminster schoolchildren, as having “all the richness of a ‘close-up’ of an Impressionist painting.” It was a day to remember.

Kayakers brave the choppy water of the Thames

George Humphreys, Chief Engineer of the London County Council and his team produced the elegant design. It was carried out by Dorman, Long & Co., well-known at the time for building the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Lambeth Bridge spans a ‘golden’ Thames in the falling light

Stretching across the Thames, it’s five steel spans, supported by stone piers and framed by a cast iron balustrade, is embellished with double lamps set on granite pillars, a further set of lamps set on steel lattice-work pillars, and adorned at either end with two obelisks, each topped by a golden pine cone finial or pineapple with acanthus leaf decoration, a design very popular at the time.
The now faded red paintwork on parts of the bridge is said to be a nod towards the red-coloured benches in the House of Lords.

Lambeth Bridge miraculously escaped the bombing in WW2, and was eventually Listed as a Grade II structure of ‘special interest’ in 2008. After the Westminster and London Bridge terror attacks in 2017, safety barriers were swiftly installed for the protection of pedestrians. It is to be hoped that when funding and priorities permit, these will be replaced by something more attractive.

Life is often so rushed that we only have eyes for the road ahead but if you can, take a walk in Victoria Tower Gardens, North and South, or cross the river to the Lambeth side, and pause for a while to let your thoughts flow with the water as it streams beneath this elegant bridge.

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Meet Wal Daly-Smith…

…Commercial Skipper and 1st Mate on Thames Cruises boats.

As we sit quietly on an inside deck of the softly rocking Thames Princess, moored at Lambeth Pier there are occasional soft splashes of water from the ripples of passing boats and the ebbing tide. Time to talk and reflect in a world away from the ceaseless road traffic on the embankment.

River Princess and Thames Princess, two of Thames Cruises vessels

The Thames has been a vital thread flowing through Wal’s life from a young boy to the present day.  Growing up and going to the Riverside School close by, and exploring the muddy shores and wastelands around Rotherhithe in the early 90s was exciting for him and his friends, giving free range to their imagination.  

If you’ve ever been on any of the Thames cruise boats where you usually get a running commentary delivered by one of the crew, you’ll probably have met a nipper proffering a hat as you disembark. This is how Wal began his work on the river.

His first experience was with City Cruises from their pier at Rotherhithe where aged twelve he met Mickey Reed, a Captain and lighterman who, as Wal showed real interest, passed on his knowledge of the river’s history and its ever changing character. “He was a kind of grandfather figure, a really good man.  He  took time and bothered with me, called me Blue”.  Working at weekends, Wal was allowed to keep the coins that he picked up from the hat, earning as much as £40 or £50.

Though his employment after school took him away from his cherished river for a while he kept in his mind, the words of a plaque that he’d seen in the Barry Albin-Dyer Memorial Garden in Southwark.: “Dream it, Believe it, Achieve it”.  Whenever he could, he chatted to and learnt from older and experienced captains along the river.  His chance of a regular job on the Thames came in 2017 when Ken Dwan and William Ludgrove of Thames Cruises showed confidence in his abilities and employed him as 1st Mate on their cruise ships.

Wal is also employed as a skipper on the Tideway project at Blackfriars, responsible for crews working on maintenance and safely checks. And, with endorsements and licences for the sailing of craft up to 24 metres, he has been ‘adopted’ by the Waterman’s Hall and is now studying for his Boatmaster’s licence. Once achieved he will earn his fourth stripe and become a Captain licenced to pilot larger, passenger-carrying boats.

Hearing a sudden low grumbling and rushing of water as a Thames Clipper slices by, he looks up. “Know someone?”, I ask.  “No, not on that one but,” he adds, “I do know a lot of those working on the river. It’s like having another family, not tied by blood but by our shared relationship with the Thames.” There’s a common understanding of its splendours and its dangers and respect for the power of the tides, which can make passing under certain bridges a challenge. “People working in the City are often hardly aware of the Thames, taking it for granted: it’s just there. But to have a job on the river which I love, is carrying on a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.  And this makes me feel a part of the sacred life on the river. I’m passionate about the Thames and I’d be really happy to see my kids following on after me.”