Curi­ous stor­ies of the Thames and its cross­ings: City of Lon­don Guides’ per­spect­ives on Illu­min­ated River

Guest posts from the City of London Guides

Illuminated River Walking Tour led by City of London Guides

Since the illumination of the first four bridges in July 2019, the City of London Guides have led over 50 Illuminated River guided walks and boat tours (in partnership with Thames Clippers), offering their expert insight into the remarkable architecture and heritage of the Thames Bridges to hundreds of Londoners and tourists alike.

As the Illuminated River guided tours have been put on hold during the UK’s lockdown, we invited the City Guides to reflect on their experience of showcasing the Illuminated River artwork to a diverse set of night-walkers and share their thoughts on the transformation it has brought to the City of London and the well-trodden Thames Path.

When the Coronavirus crisis comes to a long-awaited end, we look forward to walking the Thames with the City Guides once more.

The Last Walk

Carolyn Webb recounts her experience of leading Illuminated River walking tours during balmy summer evenings and winter storms and considers how London’s night-walkers might fare during the lockdown.

Illuminated River Walking Tour

Is there a better way to explore London than a walk by the Thames? For many City of London guides a walk on the Thames Path is a chance to show walkers a different view of the city. Not only can you hear and smell the Thames but if you are lucky, the tide reveals fragments of the past and present. Like most guides I have taken walking groups on daytime tours along both the South and North banks of the Thames but an evening Illuminated River walk sounded just fabulous. The call for City of London Guides to lead special tours of Illuminated River was last year.

Meeting the artist Leo Villareal, speaking with a lighting engineer and architects involved with the project all added to the experience but nothing compared with seeing the bridges illuminated for the first time. The effect is clever, subtle and very beautiful. The best place to view the bridges is from the Thames Path and one of the aims of the project is to encourage walkers to return and walk with friends, colleagues or family.

Carolyn Webb

Since the project started, I have led walkers on hot balmy evenings, after flash flooding on the tube network, during stormy weather and when London began to close due to Covid -19. Leo Villareal describes his light installations as digital campfires and claimed that on your return, you would not see the same pattern of lights. I can honestly say that this is true. Southwark Bridge was more teal in colour for my first walk and pinker for my second. The subtle flash of lights when pedestrians cross the Millennium bridge makes it different every time. Back in January I spotted inky patches of blue and purple on Cannon Street Bridge.

The response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive. Lighting the lattice work under Southwark bridge has provoked delight as it highlights the architectural detail of a forgotten bridge. Well thought out lighting panels have caused us to look appreciatively at largely functional bridges like Cannon Street and London Bridge. Explaining the environmental effect of light pollution has been demonstrated by the visual impact of seeing tall office buildings reflect pools of harsh white light onto the Thames in comparison with the lights under Southwark Bridge which seem to leave little to no reflection. My favourite experience was in the summer when we looked upstream at the bridges we had spoken of and viewed them in their illuminated glory against an inky purple sky. It is a project which appeals to the artist, the environmentalist or the history enthusiast.

Guiding at night has introduced me to different walkers. I have met so many people who have told me that they try something different after work for one night of the week. This could be a talk or in my case, a walk which takes them to a different view or unknown part of the city. Walkers have been all ages and cultures and truly reflective of the make up of people who live and work in our wonderful city. I have also been introduced to a particular group of Londoners who enjoy the Thames Path: night runners. They appear in packs, some with night lights strapped to their heads and some playing music. They appear suddenly, run swiftly past and disappear, with the echo of their music fading into the night.

This brings me to my last public walk in the City before the lockdown began. The group were friendly and young, happy to be going on a walk. It was surprisingly warm and I was surprised to see someone in the group wearing flip flops. She smiled and explained that she had experienced her first day working from home and had been so desperate to get out that she had not had time to change. A man mentioned that London was very quiet and that he was moving the next day and hoped it would still go ahead. I remember that Tate Modern closed that day. Looking back, I wonder how they got on with their home working and house moves and if like many, they are online culture seekers? I remember that London Bridge lit up as we approached and as we finished, we paused to take one final look at the bridges and promised that we would all be back to do this walk again.

The curious story of the Bridge House Estates

Stephen Benton shares his interest in the origin story of the Bridge House Estates and points out where to spot their distinctive ‘Bridge Mark’ plaque on London Bridge, thought to have one of the oldest logos in the world.

Stephen Benton on the opening night of the phase one illumination

The City of London often does things differently compared to other parts of the country and this is particularly true when it comes to the bridges that link the City to the other side of the Thames. The bridges, usually crossed by thousands of people a day, are owned and maintained by a body called the Bridge House Estates, which is entirely self-funding. In other words no central or local taxpayers money is needed to keep these bridges standing. How is this possible you may well ask? Like many things in the City you have to go back to the Middle Ages for the answer.

There had been a wooden bridge over the Thames by the City since Roman times, but in the late 12th century it was rebuilt in stone, with a Chapel dedicated to the recently murdered Thomas Becket. To cross the bridge you had to pay a toll, and these bridge tolls together with charitable donations went to a body called the Bridge House Estates which was established by Royal charter in 1282.

The Trust was originally established to maintain London Bridge but it took on and rebuilt the current Blackfriars Road Bridge and Southwark Bridge. It was also responsible for Tower Bridge. And in the 21st Century it became responsible for the ownership and maintenance of the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge, having contributed much of the funding for its construction.

London Bridge has been rebuilt a number of times. The current crossing opened to traffic in 1973 and is a box girder bridge built from concrete and steel. It replaced a stone-arched bridge dating from the 1830s, which in turn superseded a 600 year old stone built medieval structure.

Today’s bridge is about 30 metres (98 ft) upstream of the medieval bridge. The northern approach to old London Bridge was marked by the church of St Magnus the Martyr. Today the church faces a small dead-end courtyard but until 1831 it was on the main road into the City from the south.

That main road carried on past the Monument to the Fire of London. This explains why the Church and the Monument today seem to be a bit hidden away. The point is they were on the main road into the City when they were built.


A model of the medieval London Bridge on view at St Magnus Church, City of London

The old medieval London Bridge famously had substantial buildings all along its length. These were cleared away in the late 18th century to improve the flow of traffic. But if you want to see what the old bridge looked like, there is a wonderful model in St Magnus Church. The church used to open for visitors from Tuesday to Friday, so hopefully they will return to this opening arrangement when they allow visitors again after the lockdown.

Over time, the Bridge House Estates trust acquired an extensive property portfolio which made it more than self-sufficient. So as well as maintaining the bridges, it has a grant making arm, the City Bridge Trust, to make use of funds surplus to bridge requirements. This distributes around grants worth about £20m per year towards charitable activity benefitting Greater London.

Bridge House Mark

Often property owned by the Bridge House Estates will have a little plaque with a distinctive symbol, known as the Bridge Mark. This is thought to be one of the oldest logos in the world, as it can trace its origin back to at least the late 17th century.

If and when you are able to walk along the river and see the Illuminated River project in the real world, do look out for one of these marks underneath London Bridge as you go along the river walk on the north side of the Thames. This is also a great place to get a good view of some of the lighting panels which are being used for the Illuminated River project and to understand how the lights gently change colour.

A whole new dimension to the Thames Path

Elizabeth Carew lives by the river and professes to have the best job in the world! Here she discusses how the Illuminated River artwork has transformed her experience of walking the Thames Path.

Elizabeth Carew beside Millennium Bridge

I believe I have the best job in the world – as a professional London tour guide. When I first heard about the Illuminated River project I was intrigued and then enthralled by the whole concept and how it would work. The project has totally exceeded my expectations as it is so wonderful, generous and innovative.

When I meet my tour group at Blackfriars Station I am always excited to discover who is joining us and to find out if they have a particular reason for coming on the walk. Each bridge has its own character and history – their structure, now enhanced by the new illumination, providing us with a new dimension. As dusk falls and the bridges are illuminated our gentle stroll takes us eastwards along the northern bank of the River Thames. Geographically we only travel about 1 ½ miles but travel back in time 2000 years to when the Romans selected a prime spot on the riverbank to start their trading settlement. Where else can you see a vista encompassing such amazing contrasts in architecture from the Tower of London, almost 1000 years old, to the most recent modernistic buildings still under construction in the City? Which bridge was known as the Wonder Bridge and which was the first bridge to generate its own power? (Answers: Tower and Blackfriars). Marvel at a mosaic created from materials recovered from the mud of the foreshore.

Guides tend to be pretty geeky and we love discovering new facts. I have certainly learned a huge amount since my association with the Illuminated River project. I was fascinated to read about the project’s luminance studies which highlight how light pollution affects marine life and how this was taken into consideration during the development of the artwork. Illuminated River has brought a whole new dimension to my walks – the unique and sympathetic lighting makes each bridge really come alive and provides a theatrical, almost magical, setting for the tales I want to tell about the bridges. Some are tragic, some are amusing, but all are entertaining.

I really hope to have whetted your appetite so, when life is back to normal, you can join me or one of my colleagues on the Illuminated River walking tour.

Click to view Illuminated River in 360

Sailing adventures with Thames Clippers

Marilyn Greene recounts the rewarding but technically challenging experience of delivering an Illuminated River guided tour upon a boat sailing across the inky darkness of the Thames. A standard ticket for an Illuminated River boat tour (in partnership with Thames Clippers) costs £7.50, just 50p more than a river commute.

Participants enjoying an Illuminated River Boat Tour

I was thrilled to hear in July 2019 that I had been selected to be one of the City of London Guides to lead the Illuminated River special guided tours. I already led walking tours of the City Thames footpath at dusk when the light was changing and had also commentated on Thames Clippers boats to small groups of tourists travelling from Tower to Charing Cross Pier, so I was very familiar with this stretch of The Thames. However, doing tours in the complete darkness and just talking about this unique project and the bridges was going to be a new experience.

I was the first guide to lead one of the Illuminated River boat tours on 29 August 2019. I believe there were about 70 people on this trip and I took my pew at the front of the boat so I had a clear vision of what I was talking about.

A summer sunset during an Illuminated River Boat Tour

Marilyn Greene. Visit her website: https://www.walkingtalkingculture.co.uk/

As it was such a warm night, many of the visitors went out onto the decks to take photos which blocked my view of the artwork at times. Some people didn’t even realise who was giving the commentary and were amazed that it was not recorded and that I presented everything without a script - as we professional City Guides are trained to do! To be honest a script would be a hindrance as the beauty of these tours is in the spontaneity of the moment and being able to enthuse as you are going under a bridge, where to spot the lighting, how beautiful and calming it might seem, or how you can focus on every single rivet that supports the bridges. As we slowly glided along, the Clipper played the new bridge music commissioned by the Illuminated River Foundation and composed by students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which all added to the magic of the tour.

I greatly enjoyed this experience of learning and delivering the tours. Up until lock down I have commentated on about half a dozen trips. My last one in February however, was during Storm Dennis. I half thought that it would be cancelled but in fact about 50 people turned up to it! By now the Thames Clippers team recognised me and the safety regulations during high winds meant that the public were not allowed out on deck. Obviously visibility was not quite so good for the public, but I am sure it would still have been an unforgettable and slightly rocky experience on what would otherwise been a very dreary night!

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We hope the Illuminated River guided tours will be able to return later this year.

Booking details for the Illuminated River boat tours will be available on the Thames Clippers website. Check here for updates: https://www.thamesclippers.com/whats-on-discounts

To learn more about the City of London Guides and their tours, please visit their website: https://www.cityoflondonguides.com/

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