diamond geezer

 Friday, July 20, 2007

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 19: The Tower Bridge Exhibition

Location: Tower Bridge, SE1 2UP [map]
Open: 10am - 6:30pm (half an hour earlier from October to March)
Admission: £6.00
5-word summary: iconic bridge and engineering marvel
Website: http://www.towerbridge.org.uk
Time to set aside: an hour and a bit

Tower BridgeTower Bridge was opened in 1894, the response to a very particular design brief - how best to relieve road traffic across the Thames downstream of London Bridge whilst still permitting ships access to the Pool of London? Horace Jones' twin-towered bascule bridge provided the ideal solution - both practical and elegant - and unwittingly created a national icon. Few world landmarks have a more recognisable silhouette than Tower Bridge. The briefest sight of this multi-storey marvel in a film, TV report or photograph announces "This is London" to even the most casual observer. Maybe that's why the bridge is permamently swarming with tourists from every continent, each intent on capturing the perfect image whilst simultaneously blocking the pavement and the sightline of others.

Tower Bridge raisedThe very best time to visit, unless you're in a vehicle, is when the bridge is being raised. This happens surprisingly frequently, up to 1000 times a year, and yet it's an event I saw for the first time only last weekend. By pure fluke I happened to be at the entrance to the central span of the bridge when the siren went, the traffic halted and the pedestrian gate was closed in front of me. Damned exciting stuff! The bridgemaster waited until everything was clear - no chance of any death-defying gap-jumping here - and gave the signal from within his pierside command cabin. The two halves of the roadway clicked apart and quivered gently into the air. Slowly, but surely, they lifted to their maximum elevation - 86 degrees to the horizontal. And then, much to the delight of the crowds now thronging the piers, a twin-masted sailing ship cast off from its moorings beside HMS Belfast and sailed majestically (just) beneath the bridge's gothic portal. There's a sight you don't see every day. And then the roadway lowered slowly back into place before repeated sirens indicated that it was safe to cross again. Up and down in ten minutes flat. Why leave such magical London encounters to chance? The Tower Bridge website lists every scheduled bridge lift for the forseeable future, which is cracking inside knowledge for anyone with a camera (or any commuter attempting to take the bus from Liverpool Street to Bermondsey).

The bridge used to be raised far more frequently, and until 1912 there was an alternative public route for pedestrians to make their crossing. Each tower contains a double stairwell, four storeys high, up to a pair of metal walkways strung across the gap 140 feet above the water. This must have been a lengthy and strenuous detour, but Victorians were made of stern stuff. And the view from the top was fantastic. Which is why, just 25 years ago, the upper walkways were glazed over and reopened to tourists. You'll find the entrance on the upstream side of the northern pier. Pay up, pass through the security patdown, and wait for the lift. They don't let you walk up the stairs any more, oh no, presumably because the majority of potential visitors couldn't.

Tower Bridge walkwayAt the top of the towers are two large screens displaying looped information films, one detailing the bridge's construction and the other a century of Tower-ing greatness. Each presentation looks very dated - more a subtitled slideshow than a major multimedia experience. Look up and you can peer inside the spotlit turret, where a few plastic workmen have been positioned in an attempt to create some authentic 1890s atmosphere. Rather more exciting are the two latticed walkways across the river, up at flag-fluttering level. Ignore the row of information panels (unless it's foggy) and concentrate on the view. Downstream there's Canary Wharf, Butler's Wharf and the grand sweep of the Thames curving between Wapping and Rotherhithe. And upstream <switch walkways> there's City Hall, HMS Belfast, the Tower of London and the majestic City skyline. There are even special sliding windows in the glass to allow you and your camera an obstruction-free perspective across the panorama below. It's a view few Londoners bother to see. Their loss.

Back to the south tower to wait for the lift down to ground level, where the doors unexpectedly open straight out onto the pavement. Part two of your six quid visit continues beneath the roadway at the southern end of the bridge, at the end of a painted blue line. Make sure you haven't lost your ticket - you'll need it to get into the Engine Rooms. No prizes for guessing what you're going to see here. Steam engines, hydraulic pumps and whirly Victorian shiny things - i.e. all of the original mechanisms that used to power the raising and lowering of the bridge. The exhibit's not a thriller, but it is a slice of true London's technological history. Electricity took over fairly recently, in 1976 to be precise, and now the bridge goes up and down at the touch of a button. Sorry, but you won't necessarily get to see this happen for the admission price, you just have to get lucky. Or do a bit of research first.
by tube: Tower Hill  by DLR: Tower Gateway  by bus: 42, 78, RV1

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