Whenever you see London in movies or advertised as a holiday destination one of the first landmarks they show is the famous London Tower Bridge! This bridge has definitely become an international symbol of London and was also first on my list of London sights.
It was my friend Hermie’s first trip abroad and I couldn’t think of a better way to start exploring London that to view this beautiful and iconic sight that stands in the center of the city next to the beautiful Thames River.
It was a cold day for April but we were wrapped up and ready for a day of exploring London! The bridge consists of two towers tied together at the upper level by means of two horizontal walkways, designed to withstand the horizontal forces exerted by the suspended sections of the bridge on the landward sides of the towers.
Walking across this iconic bridge was definitely amazing but the best part was that we were able to go up one of the bridge towers and then walk across the walkway at the top of the bridge!
The high-level open air walkways between the towers gained an unpleasant reputation as a haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets; as they were only accessible by stairs they were seldom used by regular pedestrians, and were closed in 1910. In 1982 they were reopened as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition, a display housed in the bridge’s twin towers, the high-level walkways and the Victorian engine rooms.
The exhibition charges an admission fee but it is definitely worth paying. It uses films, photos and interactive displays to explain why and how Tower Bridge was built so you don’t actually have to stand there reading from your tour guide. We could also access the original steam engines that once powered the bridge bascules, housed in a building close to the south end of the bridge.
The proximity of the harbour and its location in the direction of the sea required for the bridge to allow the passage of large vessels. Hence the decision to create a moveable bridge which can be opened to accommodate boat traffic. The mechanism to open the bridge is hidden in the two towers. Until 1976, when the mechanism became electrified, steam power was used to pump water into hydraulic accumulators which powered the engines.
The bascules are raised around 1000 times a year. River traffic is now much reduced, but it still takes priority over road traffic. In December 1952, the bridge opened while a number 78 double-decker bus was crossing from the south bank. At that time, the gate-man would ring a warning bell and close the gates when the bridge was clear before the watchman ordered the raising of the bridge. The process failed while a relief watchman was on duty. The bus was near the edge of the south bascule when it started to rise; driver Albert Gunter made a split-second decision to accelerate, clearing a 3 ft gap to drop 6 ft onto the north bascule, which had not yet started to rise. There were no serious injuries. Gunter was given 10 pounds by the City Corporation to honour his act of bravery. Today, 24 hours’ notice is required before opening the bridge. It is believed that if you actually get to view this raising of the bascules it is good luck for your London adventure!
Tower Bridge is often mistaken for London Bridge, the next bridge upstream. A popular urban legend is that in 1968, Robert McCulloch, the purchaser of the old London Bridge that was later shipped to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, believed that he was in fact buying Tower Bridge.
We looked out over the historic city of London and couldn’t wait to explore the rest of the city!