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To cross the Thames by bridge is to see London. Most of the time we are in a maze of streets and the city reveals itself in fragments. However, the river opens up the city and, on a bridge, the full architectural panorama is laid out. Iconic views of St Paul's Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster become possible and the bridges themselves add to London’s visual impact and identity. Some, such as Tower Bridge, have even come to symbolize the city.
Artists have always been attracted to the Thames because of the vistas it creates and bridges, inevitably, feature in depictions of London from the very earliest images to those of today. While many artists are primarily interested in the visual qualities of bridges, others explore their psychological and sociological implications. For instance, many Londoners cross bridges as part of their daily routine, or ritual, of getting to and from work. Photographers in particular have documented the cross-river commuter traffic. Indeed, the back and forth motion of people and vehicles across the city's bridges is reminiscent of the ebb and flow of the tidal Thames itself.
The first bridge to cross the Thames was London Bridge and there have been successive crossings at or near this location since 70 AD. The first stone bridge was built between 1176 and 1209. It was surmounted, famously, by houses, shops and a chapel, and its gatehouse on the Southwark side was regularly adorned with the severed heads of traitors. The second crossing, in what is now central London, appeared in 1750, connecting Westminster with Lambeth. This was rapidly followed by Blackfriars Bridge in 1769. Subsequent bridges were built as the weight of London's traffic increased, with railway bridges appearing in the 19th century, the highpoint of bridge building on the Thames.
New and proposed bridges continue to generate discussion. The architecture of these structures has not always been distinguished. However, two 21st century bridges - the Millenium Bridge at Bankside and the Golden Jubilee Footbridge alongside the Hungerford Railway Bridge - have become self-consciously iconic destinations in their own right, crossed by approximately 8 million people per year according to one recent survey.