When is a bridge more than a bridge?
When you get to check out the view from Tower Bridge
I thought a bridge was just a bridge. And then I visited The Tower. No not the place where Henry’s Wives were beheaded. I’m talking about London’s Tower Bridge; a Victorian marvel and modern city icon. When I stood 42 metres above the Thames and experienced the view from Tower Bridge, looking down over London, I discovered it is much more than just a walkway to the other side…..
Isn’t a bridge just for crossing?
I took some persuasion to go anywhere near Tower Bridge for fun. Stuart is an engineering graduate so he’s programmed to find things like bridges fascinating. I am an English graduate so I read novels and fail to write one. We don’t meet in the middle. Ever. Even if we can get there on a bridge.
But the view from Tower Bridge is something else
But, you know what? There’s something about this one that goes beyond hydraulics and pulleys. After my visit to the exhibition, standing on the bank of The Thames with my back to The Gherkin, I begin to see its appeal. It’s a real architectural gem. With the dark pool of The Thames flowing freely underneath it, and shining brighter than the moon, it commands my attention and respect. And that’s before it even does any tricks. If Tower Bridge is breathtaking now, I can’t imagine what The Victorians would have made of it when it was first raised at the back end of the 19th century. Back then it really was a high tech miracle.
But Tower Bridge is something special
Tower Bridge was commissioned by Queen Victoria to increase commerce and shipping from the East End. The hydraulic raising mechanism was an innovative solution to the problem of getting tall ships down the Thames. A combined bascule and suspension bridge, it was finished in 1894 after eight years of labour requiring 432 construction workers.
A feat of Victorian engineering
It was, and still is, a huge beast in Victorian Gothic clothing. But it doesn’t date back nearly as far as the nearby Tower of London that it takes its name from; the original brick façade was later covered over to turn the bridge into a more distinctive landmark, and to make it mirror the Tower. On a walk around the engine room you can see that the steam engines were built to last forever.
But they didn’t need to; these days the bridge is raised with electric motors; around a thousand times a year. But the original engines are still lovingly cared for and kept in mesmerising full working order. Check out this little video to see what the kids thought of them.
The bridge that towers above The Thames
The Tower Bridge Exhibition isn’t a cosy experience. You travel up 42 metres above The Thames to the horizontal walkways in a cramped lift full of tourists. You are then transferred into a dark room without enough seats where you are shown a film. You then push your way onto the bridge itself, where it’s cold and packed, and you are hassled by a guy with a camera who wants you to pose so he can sell you a picture. But the view compensates for everything else as you look down on St Paul’s, The Tate, HMS Belfast, and the creeping, crawling River Thames.
One of the great bridges of the world
The East Walkway currently houses a ‘great bridges of the world’ exhibition, where I discover the designer of the Scaliger Bridge in Verona came to the inauguration on horseback so if the bridge collapsed he could easily flee away. I find out which bridges are international symbols of connection (Stari Most in Mostar, and “El Puente de las Américas’ in Panama) and freedom (Szechenyi in Budapest). I learn which is the busiest (Brooklyn in New York City), which is the widest (Sydney Harbour), which is the bridge of choice for taking your own life (Golden Gate in San Francisco), and which was nicknamed ‘wobbly’ (The Millennium Bridge in London).
Step outside for the wow factor
While you can while away an hour or two inside the bridge, (there’s currently also a photographic exhibition in homage to cities that have hosted the Olympic Games), it’s the outside that really shines, especially at night. Darkness falls on the capital and the stonework of the bridge is picked out by LED lights as London rushes home. How modern and energy efficient.
A moment of bridge like epiphany
“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” Winnie The Pooh
The Tower Bridge Exhibition is in central London, very close to The Tower Of London. There are lots of interesting ways to get around London and to get to Tower Bridge, The nearest tube stop is Tower Hill and the nearest Docklands Light Railway station is Tower Gateway. Allow 1-2 hrs for your visit. At time of writing tickets cost £8 for adults and £3.40 for kids. Check out the website for opening hours, booking arrangements and practical stuff.