Matt Nehl on The Thames and its Landmarks, Past & Present

Throughout London’s intricate history, the river Thames has been a crucial aspect of London life. As a major source of protection, transportation, and beauty, the river is a central part of city life and, consequently, one of the world’s most renowned rivers. As time goes on, a wide variety of changes can be seen on the banks of the Thames, from the medieval Tower of London, to the gothic façade of Westminster Palace and the ultra–modern London Eye.  These landmarks are a few of the most beloved and well-renowned structures on the Thames. They have all have come to represent London, in their own unique way, almost as much as the river itself.

The Thames from Above. Getty Images Ltd. From 100 Places to Go Before They Disappear. New York: Abrams, 2011. Web.

The Thames from Above. Getty Images Ltd. From 100 Places to Go Before They Disappear. New York: Abrams, 2011.

The Tower of London is an imposing representation of the old London, which has served to inspired awe and fear throughout the last millennium. The structure has a long and bloody[i] history with construction on the original tower beginning in 1070 at the request of William the Conqueror. When The Tower was completed 30 years later, it was the dominant element on the skyline.. By 1350 it was the most impenetrable and imposing structure in all of England, serving as a fortress-stronghold for numerous generations of English monarchs. Finally in the mid 1500’s, Henry VIII moved the royal family out of the tower, which was then transformed into a notorious prison and government office space.

The Tower of London along Tower Bridge.

The Tower of London along Tower Bridge.

Many high profile executions took place in the infamous prison, including those of Sir Thomas Moore and Lady Jane Grey, with executions continuing to take place all the way into World War II. After the war, efforts were made to restore the tower to its original medieval glory. By 1950 the government’s efforts were largely a success with The Tower becoming a major tourist destination for millions of visitors each year. The Tower of London’s ability to alter and remake itself as times change is a symbol of how all of London is able to change and adapt over the centuries. Today the Tower of London stands as a symbol of London’s long and tumultuous past, serving as a reminder of the power of imperial monarchs and the bloodshed that has stained London throughout its long history.[1]

Westminster Palace on a winter evening.

Westminster Palace on a winter evening.

Farther along the Thames rests an even more famous symbol of London in modern times: Westminster Palace. The palace is currently one of the epicenters of the United Kingdom’s government, hosting both the House of Commons and the House of Lords which, combined, make up the British Parliament. The building itself has a long history, with the original Westminster hall completed around the same time as the Tower of London in 1100. The palace served as a residence for English kings until it was ravaged by a devastating conflagration in 1512, after which it finally became the official home of parliament. Westminster Hall was again devoured by fire in 1834 that completely destroyed most of the rebuilt structures, which resulted in prominent architect Charles Barry’s present day gothic form. The iconic Houses of Parliament serve as a traditional representation of London as a great imperial power of the past. The current Westminster Palace along with its accompanying Elizabeth Clock tower (lovingly referred to as Big Ben) also represent modern day London as a center of democracy and hope throughout the world.[ii]

Across the river from the fabled government palace resides the ultra modern London Eye, the new face of 21st century London. After World War II, London was in  decline economically and in global significance. By building the London eye, the city proved that once again it is a spectacle worth seeing and a modern day cultural power. The Eye, when it was completed in 1999, was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world and currently remains the tallest in Europe. At the top of the wheel one can see 40 kilometers in all directions. This allows for a view of the entire city, which illuminates how vast and developed London has become in recent times. Originally The Eye was supposed to be a temporary festival piece with a life span of only a few years, but thanks to its immense popularity and its sheer iconic value, the London eye now remains a permanent fixture on the bank of the Thames. The Eye is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the city with over 3.5 million visitors each year. With a host of events from business meetings to weddings, the London eye stands a symbol of a new changing London with its gaze toward the future.[iii]

View from the top of the London Eye.

View from the top of the London Eye.

The city of London is host to some of the world’s most famous and iconic buildings. The full range of London’s history is nestled along the Thames, from the medieval Tower flanking the east end of the river, to the towering Eye in the center of the city. From ideals of freedom and justice or aspirations to soar to new heights, London’s greatest landmarks represent some of humankind’s greatest creations are powerful symbols of one of the world’s greatest cities.

London & Europe from space. NASA/AP.

London & Europe from space. NASA/AP.

[i] “London Eye Timeline.” The London Eye. EDF Energy London Eye 2011, n.d. Web. 04 Dec.


[ii] “Further Reading.” Historic Royal Palaces Home Tower of London History and Stories

   A Building History. Historic Royal Palaces, 2004. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

[iii] “The Palace of Westminster.” – UK Parliament. Parliament, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.


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