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Bridging the Gap

A walk along the South Bank, tracing the history of its bridges and highlighting the buildings in between.

Distance 2.7 miles (4.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 15min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Paved streets

Landscape Riverside walk

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 173 London North

Start/finish TQ302796; Westminster tube

Dog friendliness On lead

Public toilets North side of Blackfriars Bridge

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1 Leave Westminster underground station by Exit 1 to follow signs to Westminster Pier. Walk up the steps to your right and cross Westminster Bridge. Turn left along the riverfront. Ahead are the 32 transparent pods of the 2,100 ton London Eye, a huge modern ferris wheel. Just past Jubilee Gardens, on the right, is the next bridge, Hungerford.

2 Continue ahead past the Royal Festival Hall and look to the opposite bank of the Thames for a glimpse of Cleopatra's Needle. After the National Film Theatre and its outdoor café is Waterloo Bridge.

3 The path bends to the right, past the Royal National Theatre and the Hayward Gallery, before reaching the craft shops and restaurants of Gabriel's Wharf. Turn right at the Riviera restaurant and walk through the central path lined on either side with a series of wooden sculptures. Turn left at the end into Stamford Street and 100yds (91m) further on take another left turn into Barge House Street.

4 Ahead, the brown brickwork of the Oxo Wharf somewhat shrouds the entrance to the Oxo Tower. Enter the glass doors to your left and catch the escalator to the eighth floor for a better view of the skyline, or continue along the ground floor to the riverside exit.

5 Cross Blackfriars Bridge and turn left to follow the Thames Path along the wide pavement adjacent to the river. The first boat you will pass on your left is the HMS President. The next set of buildings to your right after Temple tube station belong to the University of London. Immediately after these comes majestic Somerset House.

6 A further 200yds (183m) ahead the path passes Cleopatra's Needle before reaching Embankment tube. Northumberland Avenue is the next road to appear on your right. About 200yds (183m) further on is Horse Guards Avenue, which is sandwiched between the formidable buildings of the Old War Office and the Ministry of Defence. You are now almost parallel with the London Eye, on the opposite bank of the River Thames. When you reach Westminster Bridge turn right into Bridge Street, to Westminster tube and the start.

This is a well-trodden route and a favourite for many people as it exudes a sense of space in an otherwise highly-populated city. Long before the Romans arrived, the river was used as a highway by seafaring traders. The Italians, delighted by its potential, built the first timber bridge in ad 50. By the Middle Ages the river had become so polluted that it constituted a serious hygiene problem - it's no surprise that conditions provided the breeding ground for the Black Death, which arrived in 1348 carried by rats on ships from Europe. With such a colourful history, no wonder it's endearingly called Old Father Thames.

Westminster may have been the bridge that opened up the South Bank but it was far from being a smooth operation. Initially built from stone in the 1740s, its opening was delayed by sabotage from ferrymen and the death of its sponsor. The Gothic patterns seen on the decorative wrought-iron bridge today are the work of Charles Barry, the Parliament architect, when the bridge was rebuilt in 1853.

In contrast, Hungerford, the only combined rail and foot crossing, was built as a suspension bridge and bought in 1859 to extend the railway line to Charing Cross station. Its legacy lives on in the West Country, for the Clifton Bridge in Bristol was constructed from the recycled, original Hungerford Bridge.

When work began to replace the original Waterloo Bridge in 1939, the Second World War was looming on the horizon. The new bridge eventually opened six years later, having been built mainly by women. Its architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, was also the designer behind the popular red telephone kiosk and Bankside power station, now the impressive Tate Modern. Another building with power station roots is the Oxo Wharf, which was acquired in the 1920s by the Meat Extract Company that made the Oxo cubes still available from supermarkets today. The art deco Oxo Tower has 10ft (3m) windows, which, at night, are illuminated in such a way as to spell out the distinctive 'noughts and crosses' in red neon lights to all four corners of London.

Blackfriars, the final bridge along this stretch known as the South Bank, opened in 1769 and was originally named after the Tory Prime Minister, William Pitt - it didn't take long to change the name, though. The present construction has five cast-iron arches. The remains of the rail bridge that once ran parallel look almost surreal, like the posts of a cochineal-tinted wedding cake rising out of the water - well, I did say it was surreal.

While you're there

London Frogtours is a novel, 80 minute experience in a bright yellow amphibious craft that splashes down into the river at the Albert Embankment (although why it's not bright green is anyone's guess). Turn right at the London Eye and walk for about 100yds (91m) into Belvedere Road for departures.

Where to eat and drink

Sarni's in Gabriel's Wharf serves good hot chocolate, coffee and, unsurprisingly, sandwiches. There's outside seating only, so if you're after somewhere warmer try EAT on the ground floor of the Oxo Tower. Just before Cannon Street Rail Bridge is the 17th-century Anchor Inn. It's thought that Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of London in 1666 from here. A spit-and-sawdust sort of place with creaking floors, it has a wide range of dishes including a good value, pre-theatre menu.

What to look for

Gabriel's Wharf was once the site of the Eldorado Ice Cream Company. Some 13 acres (5.3ha) in the area were saved from development into office buildings by the Coin Street Community Builders, an association formed in 1984 to create a better community environment. Here you can see some of the 160 box-style houses built in Upper Ground.

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