We all do it. We’re busy, things around us blend into the background. And so, for all the years I spent living and working in and around London, I had never visited Tower Bridge, one of our capital’s most iconic images, until recently. Oh, I have driven over it many times, walked across it, watched its great spans (or ‘bascules’) open and close again, and taken snap-shots of it. In fact, I remember making a point of driving over it when I first moved to London, and the delicious sense of nervous excitement as I ventured across. But, dropping in to say, “Hello”, properly was a new experience.
Let me explain. Tower Bridge is a public bridge; anyone can cross it, or go under it, without charge. But if you want to get inside those wonderfully Gothic towers and stagger over the high-level walkways, you need to lay down a little hard cash. Fair enough. Local residents only pay a nominal sum for doing so – which is, I think, splendid and as it should be.
Victorian London was an immensely crowded place. An additional river crossing was urgently needed close to the East End and to relieve congestion on London Bridge. But it was also vital not to disrupt river traffic from the Pool of London, the dock area immediately downstream of London Bridge. So a bridge too low to accommodate ships’ masts would not do. A committee was formed in 1876 and 50 alternative proposals were submitted. The chosen solution was a collaboration between architect Horace Jones (1819-87) and engineer John Wolfe-Barry (1836-1918), son of Houses of Parliament architect Charles Barry. Construction began in 1886 and Tower Bridge was officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 30 June 1894. There were ten fatalities during construction, but looking at some of the photographs, and bearing in mind there were some 432 workers engaged in the build over 8 years, it’s surprising the number of deaths wasn’t higher. Safety standards were slightly different in Victorian Britain. Actually, they probably hadn’t improved much by the time I had a summer job working on a motorway, but that’s another story.
Tower Bridge is a masterpiece of Victorian design and engineering. The structure is actually an enormous framework of Scottish steel – over 11,000 tons of it, all riveted together and clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone. The cladding protects the structure and gives the bridge its fairy-tale Gothic look, supposedly in keeping with the nearby Tower of London. First, though, two massive piles were sunk into the river bed and filled with gallons of concrete to form piers which provide the bases for the towers. The bascules (‘bascule’ comes from the French for ‘see-saw’) were fitted last of all. They were operated by hydraulics, using steam power. The energy created was stored in six massive accumulators so that, whenever the bridge needed to be lifted, power was always available to feed the driving engines. The bascules were so finely balanced that it apparently only took about a minute to raise them to their maximum angle of 86 degrees. The machinery to operate Tower Bridge came from W G Armstrong’s works in Newcastle upon Tyne. (Armstrong’s house, Cragside, is well worth a visit, by the way). Oil and electricity replaced steam power in 1976, but the bascules are still operated by hydraulics. They are raised about 850 times a year, a little more than twice a day. Just to illustrate how river traffic and trade has changed, in Tower Bridge’s first year it was opened 6194 times, an average of about 17 times per day.
We may as well add some more numbers. The bridge is 800 feet (244 metres) long and the towers are each 213 feet (65 metres) high. The central span (both bascules) between the towers is 200 feet (61 metres).
As with other attractions, it is cheaper to buy your tickets for what is called ‘the Tower Bridge Exhibition’ in advance, online. We found the entrance on the west side of the north tower, where a queue snaked its way round the corner and back up the road toward the Tower of London. All around was the babble of different languages. English, when heard, was mostly spoken with a foreign accent. That is one of the things I love about London; it is such an international city and welcomes visitors from all over the world.
A helpful attendant advised me that advance ticket holders shared the same queue as everyone else, but would be ‘fast-tracked’ when inside. I don’t know why she volunteered that, because it was simply untrue; was the prospect of being ‘fast-tracked’ intended to make me feel better, or special in some way? It was clearly policy to say it, because I heard one of her colleagues repeat the same fib to someone else. Now, you may be asking why I’m making a fuss about this. It is because these small lies (and sometimes quite big ones) are now worryingly commonplace in everyday commerce. Dishonesty is not only wrong and bad business practice; it is very unhealthy for the employee and society as a whole. Think about it: we could end up with a culture where it is acceptable for consumers, customers and voters to be lied to.
Actually, I suspect a queue for the Tower Bridge Exhibition is inevitable. There is not a great deal of room inside and security bag inspections have to be undertaken alongside ticket sales and checking. Both aspects were carried out well and, given that the pace of throughput is largely determined by the space available, it is hard to see how it could be improved upon without creating another problem down the line. Our advance ‘tickets’ had to be redeemed, though, for – well, tickets; so they weren’t tickets at all, but vouchers. Another lie; pah!
A large lift whisks you to walkway level, where a short introductory video explains the case for building Tower Bridge. This includes some fascinating footage of late Victorian London. I would have lingered, but the attendant, possibly on secondment from HM Prison Service and momentarily forgetting that on this occasion people had paid to spend time inside, urged folk to move along the conveyor-belt to make way for the next lift-load. So you shuffle onto the east walkway, where information boards and another brief video feed you more information. The walkways were originally open-air, but are now enclosed and glazed. Between the steel struts, they offer some wonderful views and both have glass floors, installed in 2014, enabling you to gaze, bird-like, onto the bridge and river 138 feet (42 metres) below. Of course, all the visitors having been hurried through from the previous section, it can get a little crowded. I did wonder what the floor-loading was, and whether numbers were ever limited, but swiftly thrust the thought aside.
According to the Evening Standard, the high-level walkways were once frequented by prostitutes. This was obviously before the mile-high club, but pickpockets prowled there too and things got so bad that in 1910 the City of London closed the walkways to the public. They were reopened in 1982 and there has been no evidence of prostitution since. From the east walkway, you can access the west, up-river, walkway. And in the south tower are some captivating images of the bridge’s construction. A swift lift journey down and a short walk to the south bank takes you to the engine room. This was the steam-driven powerhouse that operated the bascules back in the day and it is a work of engineering art, all gleaming brass, paintwork and greased steel. There is also a bit about some of the characters that worked at Tower Bridge. Their stories from a time when London was the largest city thus far known to man, and the docks were at the heart of an empire that ruled over 25% of the world’s population, are absorbing. It was – of course – a different era; but what emerges is that London Bridge appears to have been an exceptionally good place to work. It was its own community and people were proud to be part of it.
There are incidents too – aircraft flying through underneath the walkways and so forth. My favourite has to be the one about the No 78 ‘bus in 1952, which was coughing its way to Dulwich over the bridge at 12 mph when the bascule it was on began to rise to let a ship through. The ‘bus driver, Albert Gunter, thinking quickly, put his foot down and managed to launch his vehicle – presumably a double-decker – through the air from one bascule to the other. Wish I’d seen that. He was given a £10 bonus; I hope he didn’t spend it all at once.
Tower Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world and a ‘must see’ when visiting London. If you can catch it being raised – and details are shown on the Tower Bridge website – even better. But, I don’t think visiting the Tower Bridge Experience itself would be on my personal list of top ten must-do things in London. That isn’t to say it isn’t interesting, or enjoyable; it is both of those things – and it does offer those unique views. It’s simply that it has too much competition.