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