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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Tower Bridge, London.

Tower Bridge London.

Tower Bridge, London.

May 2019.

I felt a mixture of awe and shame wash over me as London’s exceptional Tower Bridge came into view. Awe because, well, Tower Bridge is pretty awesome. Shame due to the fact this was the first time I’d come to see it in my life. At the not too tender age of 40.

Better late than never, I thought, as I made my way down The Queen’s Walk. The stone promenade that lines the southern bank of The River Thames, between Tower Bridge and Lambeth Bridge. Even on a gloomy London afternoon like this, there’s no denying what a striking structure Tower Bridge is.

Visit Tower Bridge London.

Tower Bridge, London.

Moreover, its history is every bit as compelling. Construction began in 1886 in order to provide better access to London’s booming East End neighbourhoods. A man by the name of Sir John Wolfe Barry got the nod as chief engineer.

The main architect meanwhile was Horace Jones, the President of The Royal Institute of British Architects. Unfortunately, Jones passed away a year into construction. Thus he never got to see the completion of what became his most celebrated work.

Horace Jones architect

Horace Jones (1819-1887).

When you think of Tower Bridge, one immediately pictures its twin 65-metre towers. Barry’s design had them built on concrete piers sunk into the riverbed. They were then dressed in protective layers of Portland stone and Cornish granite. All in all, they needed over 110000 tons of steel framework for the towers and its walkways.

Tower Bridge, London.

The construction of Tower Bridge 1886 to 1894

Tower Bridge, London.

As you can imagine this was quite an operation, with a team of over 420 labourers working onsite. In the end, the bill came in at just over £1,184,000. That’s around £137 million in today’s economic climate.

Tower Bridge in London.

Tower Bridge, London.

I definitely wanted to soak up as much history as I could that afternoon. Hence I decided to splash out on a ticket for the Tower Bridge Exhibition. In fact, this is the only way to enter the two towers, so it’s well worth the £10.60 entrance fee (£5.30 for kids). In the South Tower, there are archive photographs of the building work, in addition to an original souvenir poster of the bridge’s grand opening on June 30th, 1894.

Souvenir Poster The Opening of Tower Bridge 1894

Tower Bridge, London.

The happy event attracted thousands of onlookers. Furthermore, The Princess of Wales (Alexandra of Denmark), Lord Carrington and the Home Secretary H.H. Asquith played key ceremonial roles. A magnificent painting by William Lionel Wyllie gives a sense of what an occasion it must have been.

The opening of Tower Bridge by William Lionel Wyllie 1895

Tower Bridge, London.

Tower Bridge’s central span opens so that river traffic can safely pass through. That central span is divided into two bascules (a new word for me), which means London’s iconic landmark is a bascule bridge. The things you learn…

Bascule Bridge gif.

Bascule style.

Up until the 1970s, Tower Bridge was hydraulically powered. Fascinatingly, the South Tower showcases a few of the original Victorian coal boilers, which boiled the water to make steam. The Crosthwaite Engineering and Furnace Company, based out of Leeds, made the coal boilers.

The South Tower.

Crosthwaite Furnace Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge, London.

The steam from the boilers came through to the steam pumping engines and hydraulic pumps. This filled up the accumulators with pressured water, which eventually turned the cog to make the bridge open and close. Phew, what a process.

And yes, The Tower Bridge Exhibition has these incredible machines on display. The esteemed manufacturing company Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd produced the engines.

Engine Room Tower Bridge London.

Tower Bridge, London. 

I also liked how the exhibition told the stories of the people who worked in the engine rooms. Indeed there are photos of the signal men and coal stokers of the early 1900s. And a detailed profile of a man called Ted Forrest, who served Tower Bridge as a handyman and bricklayer, before managing the entire maintenance team! He finally retired in the 1960s after 40 years of service at Tower Bridge.

Archive photo of an engineer at Tower Bridge London

Tower Bridge, London.

Back out on the low level walkway, it was great to just stop and breathe in all things London buzzing around me.

Crossing Tower Bridge in London.

Tower Bridge, London.

Leaning against the blue rail, I realised the sky had considerably brightened. This made for fine views across the Thames Skyline, particularly City Hall (where the Mayor of London has his office) nestled below The Shard, The UK’s tallest building.

Tower Bridge, London.

River Thames views City Hall and The Shard

Tower Bridge, London.

Another building that’s impossible to miss is the mammoth Tower Hotel. This Brutalist stye 4-star hotel opened in 1973 and boasts incredible Tower Bridge views from its suites and restaurant.

The Tower Hotel in London.

Tower Bridge, London.

Enjoying the moment, I slowly made my way to the North Tower, the second part of the ticketed exhibition. Along the way, I stopped, took a few choice photographs and dove into some more history.

During The Second World War, the bridge played an essential role as a transport link to London’s ports. Consequently, it became a prime bomb target. No surprise then that in 1940 German forces managed to hit the high level walkway running between the two towers. Another incident, in April 1941, saw a parachute mine explode, damaging the bascules and engine room. But still she survived. 

Visiting Tower Bridge London.

Tower Bridge, London.

The ingenious hydraulic system I’d been so impressed with got phased out in 1972. Now, an electro-hydraulic setup does the business. Management also merged the bridge’s two control cabins into one, which I saw on my way to the North Tower. This little stone structure, in the centre of the bridge, replaced the two wooden cabins situated at each tower.

Control cabin Tower Bridge London.

Tower Bridge, London.

As the blue sign explains, ships that want to pass through have to give 24 hours notice. If you want to see the bascules open, you can time your visit accordingly by checking out the day’s bridge lift times.

A Double decker bus crossing Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, London.

At last I entered The North Tower, where I took a seat in the small cinema. Here visitors watch a short but fascinating film on the Tower Bridge story, including archive video footage spanning over 100 years.

Adventures in London.

The Tower Bridge Exhibition London.

Tower Bridge, London.

Next, I took the elevator to the enclosed upper level walkway, where a thrilling glass floor offers a birds-eye view of the passing traffic below. It was interesting to read how, back in the day, the upper level gained a reputation as a precarious crime spot. 

Back in the early 1900s you could only reach the upper walkway by steep stairs. As a result, most people didn’t bother, which often left the walkway quiet. Over time, it became a hotbed for prostitutes and pickpockets. Finally, the police ordered the upper walkway’s closure and for decades it stood unused, until The Tower Bridge Exhibition brought it back to life in 1982.

Glass floor Tower Bridge London.

Tower Bridge, London.

If you’re not into the glass floor, you can simply skirt around the edges. Or get your views from the windows, which provide a fine panoramic across both sides of The Thames.

Views from the upper level walkway Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, London.

I also enjoyed the gallery of Tower Bridge in the Movies. Indeed it has cropped up in a host of celebrated films, such as Alfie, An American Werewolf in London, Trainspotting and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Tower Bridge, London.

Michael Caine Shelley Winters Alfie 1966.

Michael Caine and Shelley Winters in Alfie (1966).

I’m glad I got my wallet out for The Tower Bridge Exhibition. It adds a lot to the experience and provides a captivating window into fin de siècle London. The next time you’re in the English capital, I’d highly recommend dropping by.

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43 Comments

  • pedmar10

    Nice shots, you took better pictures than me there lol! Cheers

    November 2, 2021 - 9:48 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you sir for the kind words. Strange that it took me so long to make a proper visit.

      November 2, 2021 - 10:03 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    It’s a really photogenic bridge! Love the painting of the grand opening – one can almost feel the excitement of that day back in 1894. Thanks for taking me to the upper level and for those views from the glass floor (now, I don’t have to do it when ever I get the opportunity to visit London 😉 … I’m not sure I will find it so thrilling with my fear of heights)!

    November 2, 2021 - 9:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for visiting London Bridge with me! Ha, after the hikes you have just conquered, you can definitely do this glass walkway. Piece of cake!

      November 2, 2021 - 10:05 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Lovely pictures and thanks for the history lesson. We took a tour of Tower Bridge nearly a decade ago. This brings back such fond memories.

    November 2, 2021 - 11:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for dropping by guys, glad this reminded you of your own visit. It’s a gorgeous structure and the history makes it even more fascinating. Stay well.

      November 2, 2021 - 12:03 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Tower Bridge is certainly a site not to be missed and the Tower Bridge Exhibition is worth every penny. We took this with our kids in 2008. Each time we visit London, the trip is not complete until we walk across Tower Bridge. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan

    November 2, 2021 - 2:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Allan, glad to hear you have also enjoyed Tower Bridge’s charms up close. Hope your trip continues to go well.

      November 2, 2021 - 2:18 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    A great photo especially as I walked along the Thames Path past there yesterday afternoon. The bridge is such a magnificent structure I don’t mind how many times I see it! Hope your week is progressing well. Marion

    November 2, 2021 - 4:24 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for stopping by Marion. Will definitely be crossing with Sladja next year. And, I would like to think, a visit to the nearby Tower of London, which I haven’t done yet. Have a great week!

      November 2, 2021 - 4:29 pm Reply
      • Little Miss Traveller

        I wondered yesterday why it all looked so quiet at the Tower of London and then I remembered it was a Monday when it’s closed! Will be something really nice fir you both to look forward to.

        November 2, 2021 - 4:31 pm
  • Memo

    Having seen the bridge in film and TV, I knew it was impressive but your guided tour made it even more so, along with the fascinating history. The boiler hydraulic system was incredible. I’m assuming that the boilers had to burn around the clock. That must have taken a lot of coal. Thanks for writing about it.

    November 2, 2021 - 6:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you appreciate this fine bridge Memo. Figuring out that system had me in quite the muddle during the writing process, but I got there in the and. And yeah, burning around the clock sounds about right.

      November 2, 2021 - 7:01 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    I worked for a while next door in the Royal Mint building actually, so Tower Bridge was just down the road. But given the traffic, I preferred to escape along London Tower rather than cross the bridge. And these kinds of stories end up with no time to visit in detail what used to be so close. Thanks for the visit.

    November 3, 2021 - 12:52 am Reply
    • Leighton

      That’s not a bad old building to work in! Yeah I know what you mean about not seeing much of the neighbourhood you work in. The Tower of London is on my list for next time.

      November 3, 2021 - 8:30 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Tower Bridge is beautiful! I’ve admired it from a distance, and now will definitely pay a visit next time I have the good fortune to be in London. Thanks for the background on this world-famous landmark.

    November 3, 2021 - 4:13 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for chipping in John, hope all is well with you.

      November 3, 2021 - 8:32 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    I visited Tower Bridge for the first time when I was 22, which was also my first time in London. I was too cheap to pay to go up the towers, but I wish that I had, just for some panoramic views of the city (that, or pay to do so from the London Eye…). But I did stroll on the bridge and took plenty of photos of it in the day time and also the evening, when it lit up. Such an iconic part of London and definitely worth dropping by while tourist-ing around town!

    November 3, 2021 - 4:16 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Rebecca, I think it’s normal that you pick and choose your financial battles when you’re in London. Unless you are loaded, one can’t do everything and we usually need to carefully choose what we splash out on. I guess I’m lucky that with London being “home” I can just chip away at the city sights on each return trip.

      November 3, 2021 - 8:39 am Reply
  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    I agree with you completely: we did this exhibition tour a few years ago and found it absolutely fascinating, never mind the fabulous views.

    November 3, 2021 - 8:39 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for swinging by guys! I hope autumnal England is treating you well.

      November 3, 2021 - 8:40 am Reply
  • cheriewhite

    Such beautiful pictures! I plan to visit London sometime before I die and the Tower bridge will definitely be on my itinerary. I’ll have to admit though, walking on the glass floor in the video looked pretty scary. LOL 😀

    November 3, 2021 - 1:12 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Cherie, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. And indeed for following Leighton Travels! I hope you get to visit London someday and see Tower Bridge for yourself. You can just skirt around the edges of the glass, no worries!

      November 3, 2021 - 1:27 pm Reply
      • cheriewhite

        You’re most welcome, Leighton. I sure will. And Stonehenge is another place I’ve always dreamed of visiting. How far is Stonehenge from London, I wonder?

        November 3, 2021 - 1:29 pm
      • Leighton

        In a car, with decent conditions, just under two hours!

        November 3, 2021 - 1:30 pm
      • cheriewhite

        Thank you so much! I’d definitely make that! 🙂

        November 3, 2021 - 1:31 pm
  • Lyssy In The City

    I’d love to visit one day!

    November 3, 2021 - 1:59 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hope you do Lyssy, when this world is less chaotic.

      November 3, 2021 - 2:00 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Absolutely fantastic reading on Tower Bridge! It was so interesting to read about the history and the mechanics of it! It is one of those places that I of course know by sight, but knew very little about it. Now I’ll know to dedicate a pretty solid piece of time to really explore the exhibit on it. 🙂

    November 3, 2021 - 3:55 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Meg! It’s weird how the nearby (and comparatively ordinary) London Bridge got the famous song named after it and not Tower Bridge.

      November 3, 2021 - 3:59 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Really interesting to learn more about it from the exhibition. My company’s head office is right next to the Shard so I find myself looking at Tower Bridge fairly often – my rogue satnav has also taken me over it a couple of times!!! 🙂

    November 4, 2021 - 11:28 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha, not such a terrible diversion I suppose in the grand scheme of things. Let me know what you think of the exhibition if you do get round to visiting!

      November 4, 2021 - 11:34 am Reply
  • VM

    A seemingly nice place. Well captured photos of the bridge.

    November 7, 2021 - 4:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment!

      November 7, 2021 - 4:44 pm Reply
  • Travel Report: Tower Bridge, London. – Nelsapy

    […] Travel Report: Tower Bridge, London. […]

    November 9, 2021 - 1:04 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    The Tower Bridge is a stunning piece of architecture. I recall visiting years ago (but didn’t walk over the glass). Your photo at that spot brought a laugh! The blue highlights make the bridge look so distinctive. Any information about why those highlights were chosen?

    November 9, 2021 - 9:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hm, you’ve got me there Ruth. All I know is that the blue styling came in 1982 as part of a restoration project. Before that it had a Union Jack colour scheme (for the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977) and was originally chocolate brown!

      November 9, 2021 - 9:50 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    I didn’t know at all how the bridge worked, very complicated and interesting. Thanks for the views from the glass walkway, what a different view! Maggie

    November 28, 2021 - 6:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading this additional post Maggie. I do think Tower Bridge is the most handsome bridge in London.

      November 28, 2021 - 6:09 pm Reply
      • Monkey's Tale

        Missed this one the first time I guess.

        November 28, 2021 - 6:31 pm
  • InsideMySlingBag

    hey Leighton I am unable to DM you on Insta, is that a setting of yours?

    November 28, 2021 - 9:11 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey, I can get IG DMs from anyone who follows, so I’m not sure why you’re messages aren’t coming through.

      November 28, 2021 - 10:56 pm Reply

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