While there’s been a bridge over the River Thames near where London Bridge now stands since Roman times, the bridge which is currently there was built in the early 1970s. To find Greater London’s oldest surviving bridge across the Thames we have to head to Richmond in the city’s west.

The 300 foot long stone arch bridge, made from Portland stone, was built between 1774-77 and replaced a ferry crossing between Richmond to the east and East Twickenham to the west (this had apparently been in operation since shortly after the Norman Conquest and at the time it was discontinued consisted of two vessels – a passenger craft and a ‘horse boat’).

Designed by James Paine and Kenton Couse and built by Thomas Kerr, the bridge features five arches including a 60 foot wide central span which was big enough for larger watercraft and gave the bridge its rather humpbacked appearance. Its construction was privately funded with the £26,000 required to build the bridge partly raised via tontine schemes under which subscribers paid an agreed sum into a fund after which they each receive an annuity, the value of which increases as members of the fund die off.

Initially a toll bridge (the tolls – which were 1/2d for passengers and up to 2s 6d for coaches drawn by six horses – were ended in 1859 when the last tontine shareholder died), the bridge was widened in the late 1930s but – now a Grade I listed structure – remains essentially true to its original design.

It was the eighth bridge to be built across the the Thames in Greater London but is now the oldest still standing (among those which predated it but have been demolished are London Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge) and has been featured in paintings by the likes of  Thomas Rowlandson, John Constable and JMW Turner.

Now one of the world’s largest long distance running events, the first London Marathon was held on 29th March, 1981, and saw some 6,255 people lead across the finish line by American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who finished in a dead heat. The first woman to finish was the UK’s Joyce Smith.

The idea of holding such an event in London arose after John Disley and the late Chris Brasher (a former Olympian), both members of Richmond’s Raneleigh Harriers running club, decided to enter the New York Marathon in 1979. Returning to London exhilarated by their experience, they began investigating the possibly of holding such an event here and, meeting with a positive response from authorities, pushed ahead with it.

About 20,000 people applied to enter the first London Marathon but only 7,747 people were accepted to run. The course, which is still roughly the same, starts at various locations in Blackheath and passes through Charlton, Woolwich and Greenwich before crossing the Thames at Tower Bridge, looping around through the East End and Docklands before following the river into Westminster.

While the first race finished at Constitution Hill, between Green Park and Buckingham Palace, the race now finishes in The Mall (although for many years in between it finished on Westminster Bridge).

Such was the success of the first event – which was covered by the BBC – that the following year more than 90,000 people applied to run in the race from all around the world. Slightly more than 18,000 were accepted to run.

At the end of this year’s event – held on 22nd April (a runner from which is pictured) – more than 882,000 people have now completed the race. Now formally known as the Virgin London Marathon, a record high of 37,227 completed the run this year.

This year’s men’s race was won by Kenyan Wilson Kipsang who completed the race in  2:04:44 – the second fastest time over the London course – while the women’s was also won by a Kenyan – Mary Keitany – who, in taking back-to-back titles, completed the course in 2:18:37.

Since its inception, one of the key aspects of the race has been its fund-raising for a variety of charitable causes. Key among these is The London Marathon Charitable Trust which, established at the race’s outset, helps fund community sports facilities and develop recreational projects around the city.

For more on the Virgin London Marathon, see www.virginlondonmarathon.com.

PICTURE: © photocritical/istockphoto.com

• The Olympic Torch Relay arrives in London tomorrow night before working its way around all of the city’s 33 boroughs and reaching the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony next Friday.  The torch will arrive in the city by helicopter from Guildford tomorrow night and then be abseiled into the Tower of London where it will spend the night ensconced with the Olympic medals. The relay will travel 200 miles over the next week, carried by more than 980 torchbearers. The route is as follows:

  • Saturday, 21st July – Greenwich via Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney to Waltham Forest (highlights include a visit to the Cutty Sark);
  • Sunday, 22nd July – Redbridge via Barking & Dagenham and Havering to Bexley (highlights include a ride on the London Eye and a crossing of the Thames);
  • Monday, 23rd July – Lewisham via Bromley, Croydon, Sutton and Merton to Wandsworth (highlights include a visit to a live filming of Eastenders);
  • Tuesday, 24th July – Kingston via Richmond, Hounslow, Hillingdon and Denham to Ealing (highlights include a visit to Kew Gardens);
  • Wednesday, 25th July – Harrow via Brent, Barnet and Enfield to Haringey (highlights include a visit to Wembley Arena);
  • Thursday, 26th July – Camden via Islington, the City of London, Southwark, Lambeth, Wandsworth, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham  to Westminster (the many landmarks to be visited include St Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park);
  • Friday, 27th July – From Hampton Court Palace (where it will be taken into the maze) on board Gloriana via the Thames to Olympic Park for the Opening Ceremony.

The 70 day torch relay, which kicked off on 19th May, will have travelled a total distance of about 8,000 miles and have involved 8,000 torchbearers by the time it reaches its end. LOCOG and Transport for London have advised people to see the relay at a location closest to their home given the expected crowds. For more detailed route information, see www.london2012.com/torch-relay/route/. PICTURE: LOCOG

Still talking all things Olympics and London’s largest ever ‘pop up’ shop – where you can buy Olympic merchandise – was officially opened by multiple gold medalist Sir Steve Redgrave in Hyde Park last week. The shop, located on Rotten Row, will be the site of special athlete visits during the Games and visitors can have their photo taken with the Olympic Torch.

• Meanwhile, life-sized versions of the Olympic mascot Wenlock and Paralympic mascot Mandeville are popping up at some of London’s key tourist locations. The 83 two metre tall sculptures capture various elements of life in London with incarnations including a Beefeater, a giant red phone box and a replica of Big Ben. The figures can be found on the routes of Stroll, six new discovery trails designed to help both tourists and Londoners get more out of the city. A QR code on the bottom of each of the sculptures directs smartphone users to further information about the discovery trails. The discovery trails are part of the Mayor of London Presents, a city-wide programme featuring free events, shows and activities. For more on what’s happening in your area, see www.molpresents.com. Some of these events are also being run as part of the Festival of London 2012. For more on this, see http://festival.london2012.com.

• On Now: Shakespeare: staging the world. Part of the World Shakespeare Festival taking place in London, this exhibition at the British Museum looks at the then emerging role of London as a “world city” as interpreted through Shakespeare’s plays and examines the role the playhouse performed in this. The museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce the exhibition which features more than 190 objects including paintings, jewels and rare manuscripts. These include the Ides of March coin, a Roman gold aureus commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar), the Lyte Jewel, presented to Thomas Lyte in 1610 in thanks for his work in tracing King James I’s lineage back through Banquo (Macbeth), and a 1610 bird’s-eye view of Venice (Othello and The Merchant of Venice). Runs until 25th November. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

• The largest official Olympic Rings were unveiled at Richmond Park National Nature Reserve in London’s south-west this week, having been mown into the grass by the Royal Parks’ shire horses. The rings, which lie on Heathrow’s flight path and are 300 metres wide and more than 135 metres tall, will welcome athletes as they fly in to compete in the Games which kick off later this month. It took six shire horses to create the giant rings – which represent five continents – but they’ll be maintained by just two – Jim and Murdoch. Horses have worked in Richmond Park since as far back 1637 when King Charles I had the park enclosed as a royal hunting ground. Eleven Olympic events will be held on Royal Parks during the Games including road race cycling in Richmond Park. For more on Richmond Park, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park. PICTURE: LOCOG.

• Almost 50 vehicles, ranging from handcarts to horse drawn carriages, steam powered vehicles to a new London bus, took part in the Worshipful Company of Carmen’s traditional ‘Cart Marking’ procession through the City of London yesterday. The ‘trade’ of carmen dates back to the 13th century when City authorities passed a bye-law controlling carters. At the ceremony, the carmen bring a variety of vehicles which are branded by placing a red hot iron on a wooden plate, with the year letter and the car number, in the continuation of an ancient tradition. The Worshipful Company of Carmen is said to be the oldest transportation organisation in the world. For more on the livery company, see www.thecarmen.co.uk.

• The late athletics coach Scipio Africanus “Sam” Mussabini (1867-1927) was honored this week with the unveiling of an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former home in Herne Hill in London’s south. Mussabini, whose role in helping 100 metre sprinter Harold Abrahams win gold at the 1924 Olympics was depicted in the film Chariots of Fire (he was played by Ian Holm),  lived at the house at 84 Burbage Road from 1911 to about 1916. It backs onto the Herne Hill Stadium where he worked as a cycling and athletics coach from the 1890s, a period during which he trained several medal-winning Olympic athletes. All up, Mussabini’s runners won a total of 11 Olympic medals including five golds, between 1908 and 1928. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

On Now: Double Take: Versions and Copies of Tudor Portraits. This display at the National Portrait Gallery features five pairs of nearly identical Tudor portraits and explores how and why they were made. Among the portraits from the gallery’s collection on display are those of King Henry VIII, his wife Anne Boleyn, Archbishop William Warham, the merchant Thomas Gresham and Lord Treasurer Thomas Sackville – all of which are paired with paintings on loan from other collections. Admission is free. Runs until 9th September. For more information on the Making Art in Tudor Britain research project – of which this is a part – see www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain.

• Celebrate the Diamond Jubilee next Tuesday in Richmond Park as it hosts ‘Wild London’, the borough’s “first festival aimed at celebrating London’s woodlands, parks and gardens”. The event, which is being put on by Richmond Council and Royal Parks, will mark the Queen’s first visit to the borough in 23 years. It will showcase the conservational, recreational and inspirational role that parks and gardens play in London and will include hands-on exhibits, demonstrations, displays and performances. The event will be the first in a series celebrating the Diamond Jubilee held in Royal Parks. For more information, see www.richmond.gov.uk/home/leisure_and_culture/diamond_jubilee.htm

• The National Trust has launched a new photography competition aimed at celebrating green spaces and the life of the Trust founder Octavia Hill. The competition, called Your Space, is running in conjunction with National Trust Magazine and is open for entries until August. The competition was launched by internationally acclaimed photographers – Mary McCartney, Joe Cornish, Arnhel de Serra and Charlie Waite – with a new collection of pictures at National Trust places. One of the three Trust founder, Octavia Hill was a leading environmental campaigner in the Victorian Age and campaigned to save places in and around London like Parliament Hill. Entries in the competition, which aims to capture images of everyday green spaces, could include pictures from the local park or countryside. For details on how to enter, follow this link

• The author of the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling, received the Freedom of the City of London this week. The books have sold an estimated 450 million copies worldwide and have been made into films. The Freedom ceremony took place at Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. Speaking before the ceremony on Tuesday, Rowling was quoted as saying that both her parents were Londoners. “They met on a train departing from King’s Cross Station in 1964, and while neither of them ever lived in London again, both their daughters headed straight for the capital the moment that they were independent.  To me, London is packed with personal memories, but it has never lost the aura of excitement and mystery that it had during trips to see family as a child. I am prouder than I can say to be given the Freedom of the City, which, on top of all the known benefits (and few people realize this), entitles me to a free pint in The Leaky Cauldron and a ten Galleon voucher to spend in Diagon Alley.” For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

• On Now: Royal Devotion. This exhibition in the Great Hall of Lambeth Palace is being held to mark both the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and the 350th anniversary of the revised Book of Common Prayer. The display charts the relationship between Crown and Church and its embodiment in the history of the Book of Common Prayer, one of the most important books in the English language. As well as the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, highlights include a 1549 printing of the Book of Common Prayer, medieval illuminated manuscripts, including the Book of Hours of King Richard III, Queen Elizabeth I’s personal prayer book and a copy of the book of private devotions compiled for Queen Elizabeth II in preparation for her coronation, the Book of Common Prayer used at the wedding of Queen Victoria, and King Charles I’s own handwritten revision of State Prayers. Admission fee applies. Runs until 14th July. For more, see www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/

Ham House near Richmond in London’s south west is making a star appearance in the new Disney movie, John Carter. The 17th century mansion, located on the Thames, is doubling as a New York mansion on the Hudson River and the cast and crew spent six weeks filming there in January last year. The film is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 sci-fi comic-book John Carter of Mars, about a civil war veteran who is magically transported to a turbulent new life on the red planet. For more on Ham House, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house/. PICTURE: ©2011 Disney.

• North London born poet John Hegley has been appointed poet-in-residence at Keats House in Hampstead for this summer. Hegley, whose poetry collections include Glad to Wear Glasses, The Sound of Paint Drying and My Dog is a Carrot, will host workshops and readings during his residency which takes place from 1st May to 31st October. He will also host the launch and closing event of the Keats House Festival, held at the house between 1st and 10th June, and present a series of meetings, entitled Sunday Tea with John (Keats), on the last Sunday of each month. These will include music and a 20 minute lecture about a particular aspect of Keats’ life. For more, see www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

• Writers Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen have been commemorated with English Heritage blue plaques. Caribbean-born Rhys (1890-1979) lived at Paultons House, Paultons Square, in Chelsea in the 1930s and it was while here that she developed her career as a novelist and penned Good Morning, Midnight (1939), now considered one of her finest works. Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) lived at 2 Clarence Terrace, Regents Park, for 17 years and during her time there wrote her two most celebrated works, The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949). Last month blue plaques were unveiled commemorating the home of singer Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003) – described by her biographer as “Britain’s first black star” – at Ovington Court in Kensington and that of florist to royalty Constance Spry (1886 – 1960) on the site of her Mayfair shop at 64 South Audley Street. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/.

Now on: Mapping the London Blitz. This exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell centres on a series of bomb damage maps made during the dark days of World War II. Created by the London County Council, the 110 large maps used a color code to indicate the extent of damage in individual buildings and covered 117 square miles. Now in its last days – exhibition closes on 29th March. For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/lma.

Covering almost 1,000 hectares, Richmond Park, located by the Thames in the city’s south-west, is the largest of the Royal Parks. We have talked about some of Richmond Park’s history in an earlier post, but here we’ll give a little more detail.

The park’s association with royalty goes back at least to the time of Edward I, who ruled in the late 13th and early 14th century, when it was part of the Manor of Sheen.

It was King Henry VIII who renamed the manor Richmond (after one he possessed in Yorkshire) but it was King Charles I to whom the park owes its existence as we know it.

Charles, who had brought the court to Richmond in 1625 to escape the plague, enclosed the park – then farmland and pastures – in 1637 with eight miles of walls (these still remain, albeit having been repaired) and kept 2,000 red and fallow deer inside. The move didn’t met with universal approval from his subjects but he did pay compensation and eventually give people a right of way and allow them to collect firewood after complaints.

Features within the park – which still contains 650 Red and fallow deer (don’t get too close!) – include King Henry’s mound which features a protected, although tiny, view of St Paul’s Cathedral in the city 12 miles distant – it’s said by some that it was here where King Henry VIII watched for fireworks to be set off at the Tower of London indicating Anne Boleyn had been beheaded although the truth of that remains lost to history (others say it was here he watched hunting parties in the park – perhaps more likely).

The park is also home to White Lodge – it was a hunting lodge built for King George I and is now The Royal Ballet Lower School (complete with ballet museum) – and Pembroke Lodge – this house with stunning views overlooking the Thames Valley, now a restaurant, was once home to Prime Minister Lord John Russell and later the childhood home of his grandson, Nobel Prize-winning philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell.

More recently created is the Isabella Plantation – a woodland garden created largely in the 1950s by George Thomson , then park superintendent, his head gardener, Wally Milleron, an area once known as The Sleyt or Isabella Slade. The garden is well worth a visit at any time of year, having been specifically designed to be interesting all year round.

Richmond Park also features a lake divided in two by a causeway – as so known as Pen Ponds – which was dug in 1746 and remains a good place to see waterbirds.

WHERE: The park is located south of the Thames-side village of Richmond (nearest tube is Richmond). WHEN: 7am in summer (7.30am in winter) to dusk; COST: Free to enter; WEBSITE:www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond_park/