Tower Bridge on the river Thames is a London icon, its image instantly recognisable across the globe and synonymous with London itself. As well as being a major road through the capital, the Tower Bridge has an exhibition which is open to visitors, who can climb the steps to the top, walk across the glass ceiling over the river and explore the depths of the engine rooms. If you time your visit well, you may even get to be over the bridge when it opens to allow boats through.
Built between 1886 - 1894 to open up the East End of London, the bridge is a marvel of Victorian engineering. It was built when London was the busiest trade port in the world and was only getting busier; it could take people an hour to cross London Bridge which is just up river. A new bridge was needed, but one that would lift to allow in the huge boats who were making their way up the Thames to the docks. The distinctive and unusual upper walkway only exists to allow pedestrians to cross when the bridge below opens to allow boats through and so is closed to traffic.
Tower Bridge used to open about 9,000 times a year, or 25 times a day, which could have brought London to a complete standstill at the time if foot traffic hadn't been able to keep moving. Its highest recorded opening was in 1910 when it opened 64 times in one day. The bridge now opens about 900 times a year.
Tower Bridge is a bascule bridge - essentially just two giant seesaws with weights which raise and lower the two halves. Cogs and chains move the weights, all controlled by machinery which was powered by steam until 1976, when it was replaced with electricity.
At Queen Victoria's request it was designed to blend in with the Tower of London which is right next to it ad some mocked it for its neo-Gothic style, yet today it stands out as one of the few places in the area which look like 'authentic' London with its carved arches, turrets towers and ornamentation, all of which give it a rather fanciful yet distinctive look.
Visiting Tower Bridge
A visit to Tower Bridge starts on the north side of the bridge at the small ticket office which leads directly to the stairs of the north tower. The very first thing you notice as you enter is the smell of oil, that subtle yet pervasive aroma of machinery.
After climbing a few sets of stairs you realise just how well crafted and immaculate your surroundings are, with thick layers of glossy paint and precise detailing throughout. Every spindle is decoratively shaped, the wood panelling in the walls is at careful slanted angles, the Victorian lamps have incredibly ornate brackets, the rivets stand out in precisely lined rows, the glass in the windows is diamond-shaped leaded panes.
On the way up the stairs are several information panels with facts and figures about the tower, and on each of the landings are small displays. One is about the way the bridge was built and how the divers had to work for 9 hours at a time in those heavy old fashioned diving suits, one of which is on display, to construct the cassions, the underground chambers which hold the weights to raise the bridge.
One display is the office of the site architects and engineers who built the bridge. The final landing you reach is at the top, where you can rest for a while and watch black and white footage of the bridge throughout its history and marvel at the engineering around you while you catch your breath from the climb.
Once recovered, it is time to head out on to the walkway over the Thames.
The first thing you notice are the views. Even on a cloudy day they are far reaching and spectacular - you can see down just one side of the Thames (the other walkway blocks the other side). There are a few tiny little windows up there at head height, just big enough to get a camera through, so you can take pictures without glass in the way: the dome of St. Pauls, the brooding D-Day ship HMS Belfast, the walkie-talkie skyscraper with its Skygarden, the famous Shard and those ever present cranes as they knock down quirky old London and replace it with more chrome, steel and glass.
The walkway is flanked by white metal beams, the sunlight leaving crisscross patterns on the polished wooden floor. Halfway down the walkway is a glass floor and above it is a mirrored ceiling which was installed in 2014. The walkway had never really been used by pedestrians to cross the bridge as the steps made it hard work - in fact for many years it had been the place to go for the seedier side of London life.
Before booking tickets, I had looked on the official website for the bridge opening times, and so had been able to plan our visit to coincide with being on the walkway as it opened for the Dixie Queen, a charter party boat. We had arrived on the walkway a bit too early, so we spent half an hour sitting on a handy bench watching the other visitors pass us by, and the boats, traffic and pedestrians pass 40 metres underneath our feet.
We did enjoy watching people's reactions to the glass floor. Most kids ran straight for it and revelled in running over it or peering down through their feet in astonishment. A few adults would gingerly step on it but then gain courage and walk across it smiling. My favourites were the ones who would stand there looking a bit awkward, as if being an adult they really shouldn't be getting such a kick from standing on a glass floor over a bridge.
The most entertaining was a group of about 8, with one woman making a huge fuss out of stepping on it, her family all trying to coax her across.
She kept refusing and just stood there wringing her hands, peering over the glass and and darting back in horror. She milked it for quite some time with an increasing amount of melodrama, until she eventually crossed it with her family by her side, their attention all firmly fixed on her; I suspect exactly what she had wanted from the start.
If you are similarly afflicted, it is worth noting that it is possible to cross the bridge on the wooden floor, either side of the glass walkway, without walking on the glass.
The bridge had been built with the parliamentary order that boats had to be allowed to pass through for free. There are some requirements, such as they have to phone up at least a day in advance and that the boat has to be tall enough to warrant it. Apparently some boats do push it - Dixie Queen isn't tall but has stuck a huge pole on top just to get the bridge to open and give their party goers an extra special experience. It is a quick opening and closing process, taking 90 seconds for each action - it used to be 60 seconds but they are trying to extend the life of the machinery which operates it.
The time came for the Dixie Queen to pass underneath and for the bridge to lift. We all gathered around the edge of the glass walkway, cameras at the ready, and a guide talked us through what was happening. We heard the sirens to stop the pedestrians and the traffic from crossing the bridge and then stillness descended under our feet. The two parts separated and lifted, it was surprisingly quick and silent.
The boat floated into view: there was a wedding on board, the bride in a large white gown in a corner, the guests all dotted around her with drinks like some sort of tableau. It felt like we were seeing something that few would see, this tiny little 'toytown' world passing beneath our feet.
Cameras clicked, the boat moved on and the bridge swiftly and silently closed. Within a matter of seconds the pedestrians and traffic were back on the bridge - everything had stopped for this brief moment and then the world resumed where it had left off.
With much delight at having seen something rather special, we finally crossed the walkway to the other side and descended down the south tower. Looking up inside it is an incredible sight as you can see the complexity of what is keeping it still standing, all of those metal beams stretching into the cavernous heights of the roof.
Heading down more stairs, there are displays of objects in glass cases - assorted nuts, bolts, screws and tools used in the construction, as well as a cross section of the glass floor you just stood on, which is a reassuring 7cm thick. There is the old Bridge Master's uniform as well as tiny wooden boxes containing the spices which were shipped into London when it was at the centre of sea trade. Back outside on the bridge you follow the blue line down some steps into the engine rooms.
The engine rooms house what were once the beating heart of the Tower, where up to 80 men would work underground to maintain the steam engines which operated the bridge up until the 1970s. The old machinery has been immaculately preserved and is an amazing sight.
There are two huge black boilers covered in rivets, wheels, measuring gauges, valves and other assorted parts, the brass detail gleaming against the matte black, the whole area lit with red to show the heat which once came off them.
There are nice little touches in the rooms which bring them to life, like the workwear hanging on pegs, racks of tools on the walls and what I think was a handwashing area made entirely of dazzling brass.
The actual engines are unlike anything I've seen before - one is still in motion to show how it worked. They are immaculate: bright glossy paint, the brass polished to within an inch of its life, the steel perfectly matte, the yellow liquid in the brass gauges translucent, the polished wooden handles smooth from years of use. On the wall were traditional brass valves and old bakelite telephones on a mahogany board. Never before have I been impressed by machinery, but I stood and stared at these pristine specimens, utterly entranced by the detail and craftmanship.
As you leave the engine rooms you pass through a display about the lives of the people who worked there and you realise just how many people spent whole working lives to keep the bridge functioning. It must have been a thriving community and a truly unique place before mechanisation.
I left Tower Bridge with a completely new appreciation for both fine engineering and the Victorian 'Steampunk' style. If Tower Bridge was built today it would be constructed from slabs of concrete and sheets of glass, covered in signs and health and safety warnings; there would be no detail added unless it was strictly necessary - no finials, brass trims, rivets, ornate carvings, angled wooden panels, wooden banisters or the rest of it. The beauty is in the detail and it is what makes Tower Bridge such a fascinating place to visit.
Having timed our visit rather well, we left the engine room and loitered near the bridge for 15 minutes until we saw the Dixie Queen again, this time to pass back under the bridge.
From our viewpoint at ground level it looked like the bride had barely moved from her spot but this time we also heard the noise of clinking glasses and celebration coming from the decks.
The Dixie Queen gave a cheery tootle as she left, the bridge silently lowered and was soon awash with Londoners continuing on with their rush across the capital.
VISITING TOWER BRIDGE
How to get to Tower Bridge
Public Transport: The nearest tube station is Tower Hill
When is Tower Bridge open?
Daily 9.30am - 5pm
How much does it cost to visit Tower Bridge?
Are there any facilities at Tower Bridge?
There are loos and a gift shop. This being London, there are cafes and restaurants all around the site.
Useful tips for visiting Tower Bridge
If you want to time your visit to coincide with a bridge lift, all of the dates and times are on this page on the website >>