Thursday January 19 2017
For some reason (probably TFL) we thought the entrance to this ‘experience’/museum was on the South side of Tower Bridge but the start is actually at the base of the North Tower. Though very cold it was in fact a beautiful day so the camera had been working away capturing the full tourist experience from alongside the ‘Belfast’ (of which more later).
Tower Bridge is one of several maintained by the City of London aka the Corporation and hence is well emblazoned with the city’s crest and decorated with its limited palate – red and white. It does cost but there are .reasonable reductions for the usual concessions
There is a clear trail to follow and a lift takes you to the top floor, which is a spacious lobby to the walkways. By way of introduction there is a collage of early film clips of ‘heavy traffic’ in London – because horse drawn vehicles take up so much space and are less disciplined than more modern vehicles the traffic shots round London’s pinch points – the Strand, Hyde Park Corner and the bridges – look every bit as busy as today. London needed a new bridge to relieve the strain elsewhere and also one that allowed tall ships as far up the Thames as possible. This was the brief and several proposals were made. The first filmed ‘lift’ was in 1903.
After this brief introductory film, the screen surrounded by some random Victorian artefacts to give you the period feel (the smell of old wood, iron and oil is enough to make you realise this is not a new structure), you are encouraged to set off along the East walkway, where between the multiple metal struts there are extensive views down the river, and as this is the ‘last bridge’ for the time being, the view is clear – the river also widens considerably from this point.
The walkways are the exhibition space – to the right are WORLD BRIDGES, so a collection of large colour photos of the world’s iconic bridges, old and new, and their vital statistics. We had fun spotting those we had visited and I am sure it is an added attraction for their many foreign visitors. To the left are small illustrated fact boards about the planning & structure and material of the bridge and its context – trade and commerce round the pool and docks of London.
As we said two weeks ago in the Maths Gallery, architects would be nowhere without their structural engineers and both are fully honoured here. Interestingly the engineer was J Wolfe Barry, son of the Charles Barry who designed the Houses of Parliament. We imagined the twin tower design was chosen to honour the Tower of London on the neighbouring bank. The bridge joins the south London borough of Southwark and the north east Tower Hamlets. The City’s architect was Sir Horace Jones who in fact died before completion and there were five contractors involved. The towers are actually steel structures, clad in bricks and then Portland Stone, and the upper walkways are in part to brace the lower sections though also supposed to offer pedestrians an alternative crossing when the bridge was open – however this option never proved very popular and they were closed in 1910. Once the walkways were in place construction could start on the bascules which arrived in 12 metre sections.
One of the information boards that caught our attention was the use of Thameside as ‘beaches’. The King was very keen that London’s poor children should be offered a beach experience and this tradition continued until someone realised that the swimming was dangerous because of poor water quality!
The views from up here ate stupendous and well worth the admission price alone, but of course the selling point is the glass walkways. A small section of the walkway is heavy duty glass and therefore you can look straight down on the river or passing traffic – it is a vertiginous feeling and though we coped it was quite a relief to have the solid floor again. According to one of the very pleasant staff, who are all well informed about the exhibits, a previous school party had done hand stands and back flips along the glass walkway.
Reaching the other end there is the equivalent lobby and film screen, this time with a computer simulation of the construction process. The tour then takes you back along the west facing walkway, where the Bridge and Information boards continue. The view this way takes in the next three bridges or so and much of London’s famous skyline – old and new plus excellent views of the Tower and the Pool of London. Jo had been working on the ‘Belfast’ when the ship was towed away to be refitted, and she remembered how the five little tugs had manoeuvred her under the walkway with the radar mast only just fitting beneath – it was a very slow operation. Somewhat to our surprise the bridge opens 3 times a day on average as even as Londoners it’s quite rare to catch it!
Still enjoying the views we completed the walkway, a bit more blasé about the glass floor second time around; you are then turned back to the south tower from where you are encouraged to walk down the impressive metal stairways. A recent addition to enliven your descent is various relief plastic plaques reminding you of London’s riverside buildings – we were somewhat surprised to see ‘City Hall’ the Mayor’s HQ referred to as the Armadillo ?
Back down at street level the trail leads into the engine rooms complete with that warm slightly oily metallic smell. As far as we understood it the bascules – the two opening halves of the bridge worked through a counter-balance – still work on hydraulic (water) power but presumably electrically driven whereas back in the day you were looking at steam power. This is the same kind of machinery and doubtless gives the same kind of joy to its enthusiasts as steam trains. The boilers are bigger (very handsome black cast iron) and were heated by coal brought along the river and tipped from a chain of handy trugs. When the water is hot enough it turns to steam which powers the pistons – there is even a complicated (when I say complicated it means I don’t really understand it) system of power storage as of course the bridge is opened on demand and is not in constant use as the pistons driving a train engine would be.
The machinery has been beautifully preserved and presented and the information boards are multi-lingual and easy to follow. There are even small scale models at the end which you can operate.
The exit is of course via the gift shop which offered a range of models of the bridge to build, though interestingly not the Lego one. The museum attraction is understandably popular with tourists as the views and walk are worth the price alone, but there is enough easily digested information to detain a visitor who wants a little more history and context.