Tower Bridge, up close and personal

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:39 am

Tower Bridge, visit LondonWe 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.

Sign for Tower BridgeDomine dirige nosLet 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.

Tower BridgeVictorian 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.

Dusk at Tower BridgeSteel structureTower Bridge at duskJohn Wolfe Barry and Horace JonesTower 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).

Glass walkwayAs 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!

View of Canary WharfA 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.

View of London looking westAccording 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.

Tower Bridge ExhibitionTower Bridge construction fatalitiesInside Tower BridgeThere 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 engine roomTower 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.

Tower of London from Tower Bridge


62 thoughts on “Tower Bridge, up close and personal”

  1. It’s true, living in London you sometimes forget to appreciate and visit the many landmarks. I went to Tower Bridge last year and it was a lovely visit, although a bit crowded.

    1. Huge population growth through the 19th century, as you probably know/can imagine. I’m guessing that areas of population density have shifted – eg fewer people live in the actual City of London now. But it is more built-up – rural areas have disappeared – and the conurbation covers a much bigger area. It is still congested, but I am always surprised at how many green spaces there are, from squares to parks to areas of common land.

  2. Many thanks for another interesting post, and for sharing your views on this Experience.

    It does look a fascinating place to visit, but I’ve not got a good head for heights so I’m not sure that I’d enjoy the see-through floor, but those views up and down the Thames do look very good.

    All the best Jan

  3. I’m not sure that I’d enjoy the see-through floor but I would love the views up and down the Thames. A very interesting account of a visit to one of the best known sights in London. I love to watch bascule bridges; we have two near us – one in Lowestoft and one at Mutford Lock in Oulton Broad.

  4. Loved the construction photo and the construction worker mannequins. They give a visceral sense of the tenor of the late 19th century that the finished bridge can’t convey.
    On the walkway it appears that the ceiling includes mirror panels – a bit of theme park overkill from my point of view – especially when the views up and down the Thames have so much to offer.

    1. Yes, the construction photos of buildings we know well are fascinating. They only have the ceiling mirrors on one walkway – and actually it’s very effective. But the views are best thing, for sure.

  5. That was interesting. I’ve wondered about that tour, if it was worth it. I was disappointed not to be able to walk all the way across the bridge and back. The short walk allowed was very, very crowded.

  6. Hi Mike – a few years ago I went to an exhibition of bridges in the top ‘gallery’ – before the glass floor spaces were put in … I still have to do the write up about the 10 iconic bridges – my grandfather designed two of them … and I went into the bascule and history area lower down – then got ‘thrown out’ on the south side of the river … and wondered what to do!

    I’d walked miles by then … and just wanted to get a bus or a tube back to Victoria … and I’m not brilliant working my way around the south bank … I think I walked it – I was shattered by the time I got back for my train. But I do enjoy going to see Tower Bridge – thanks for this write up though – cheers Hilary

      1. They weren’t London Bridges – one was Victoria Falls Bridge, and the other Sydney Harbour … and obviously involved with a lot of other projects … I don’t know a huge amount – as my father was the third son … but it’s a part of life!! The bridges were brilliant to see though – actually I think possibly only one of them featured … but I’ve got some photos here …

        My walking wasn’t good – before I had the hip op a couple of years later … my grandfather died when I was 3 … early 4s …

        Cheers H

  7. I know the structure well, but never went to the exhibition. Three times ran across the lower level in the London Marathon. I agree with you entirely about the fast tracking scam.

  8. Hi Mike, let’s hear less cynisism about politicians and their lies, especially now we are in election mode. And you were ‘fast tracked’: ” the attendant,. . .urged folk to move along the conveyor-belt to make way for the next lift-load.” Another delightful visit to a national treasure, thank you. It must cost you a fortune in admission fees to all these places you visit so it’s good of you to share the experience with your worldwide fan base.

  9. I was lucky to go inside the bridge when it wasn’t so busy and enjoyed the experienced but agree with you that it would not be in my top reccommended places to visit. However watching the bridge open is a great spectacle and I doubt visitors realise how often that occurs. As you suggest checking the website is a must if you want to see something special.

  10. Another really interesting read Mike. There was a time when I happily joined queues, but the older I become the more I am weary of queing, so I don’t. A shame really because I probably miss out on such a lot.

  11. I visited London in Sept. 2018. Visited the Tower Bridge and the exhibition. A beautiful Victorian era structure. It seemed less crowded on our visit than yours. We weren’t rushed.
    Thanks for sharing interesting information.
    We also visited the Isle Of Wight and hope to return one day.

  12. Thanks for the insight on the bridge and letting us off the hook on having to visit the interiors. 🙂 I’ll continue to enjoy the views from afar and closeup without the Tower Bridge Experience…

  13. Was on the bridge about two weeks ago, it never gets old. If you stand on the bridge 15 minutes or so,you will no doubt see a least a hundred pictures taken. Maybe one or two of the bridge it self, the rest will be what I guess you call”selfies” , and then posed pictures taken by a friend. Hair is brushed, clothes added or subtracted , smile or pout, stand this way and lean that way, this goes on from one end of the bridge to the other. London could make a fortune if it installed changing booths, I am sure people would gladly pay to change clothes to get that perfect picture of them, on……..oh yeah a bridge of some sort!!

  14. artandarchitecturemainly

    Your photo of the gothic tower is fantastic and it was one of the first place I visited in London. But I don’t remember the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Was it always there and is it permanently in place for my next trip?

  15. We made sure we walked over it when we visited London, Mike. We didn’t take the tour though. I was surprised to see that it is younger than the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

  16. Wow those are some amazing shots! 🙂 Up close and personal, indeed. Loved the picture you included with the bridge under construction! 🙂 One of these days I’ll have to go inside. I haven’t managed that yet.

  17. Mike, thank you for all the wonderful information! It’s such a beautiful structure. I had no idea about the prostitution and other things. The UK is the only place outside of the States I want to visit. My family history goes back to the UK. I would love to visit the Abbey Road Studios too. I remember The Beatles so well as a young man, wonderful memories.

  18. Hello Mike. I enjoy your articles immensely. The one about Tower Bridge reminds me that my granddad, a cockney, was on the bridge the day it opened. The same man took me on one of London’s last trams along the Embankment. I remember well the hard slatted wooden seats, the loud warning bell, the alarming sway at speed, and the noise. Also the late father of a close friend was the captain who brought HMS Belfast up the Thames to her last berth.
    Strength to your arm!

  19. I think I would love that exhibition, although probably not too excited about walking on the see-through floor. I read this aloud to Mr. C and we were shocked to think that politicians over there might lie to the voters. The whole paragraph made me laugh and I realize how cynical I’ve become. So this seems like an interesting thing to see, especially if it’s not too expensive. Otherwise I’d probably go back to Parliament or IWM or V&A, my favorites (after the cathedrals of course).

    1. So many free things to do in London, Judy. I still think the best pay to enter attraction is the Tower of London. I think we expect politicians to lie sometimes – but I get hacked off when companies do it; and they really don’t like it when you point it out.

  20. Most bridges we love because of their structure, we can see the beauty of their design, but like the Victorian lady she is, Tower Bridge has covered herself well, but we still love her. Our best walk over London Bridge was one Christmas Eve when we got off the train at Waterloo, met daughter and son-in-law at the Festival Hall and walked with them back to their flat just outside Canary Wharf. Quite a long way I guess, but with a few stop offs at Dickensian pubs for mulled cider.
    Our younger son once managed to get two speeding fines – for going over Tower Bridge at over 20 MPH and then back again!

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