Tower Bridge is undeniably an icon of London. People who have never been to London are visually aware of it and, more importantly, know exactly in which city it resides. The Germans even chose it as their “centre point” for when to drop the bombs during the blitz of WWII. Tower Bridge was left unscathed for this reason, something that, I suppose, we should be a little grateful for.
Completed in 1894, it was seen as an engineering feat of its day. With the fast-increasing population and commercial development within the east end of London in the second half of the 19th century, there was an urgent need for more bridges. The problem with a traditional fixed bridge meant that the port facilities for the Pool of London would be inaccessible between London Bridge and the Tower of London. It wasn’t until 1884 that architect Horace Jones and engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry completed the designs for an opening bridge. The Bridge took on its nickname of Tower Bridge (From it’s situation next to the Tower of London) before building had even finished.
It is a combination of a bascule (French for “seesaw”) and suspension bridge. The two towers are joined together by two upper horizontal walkways, which are supposed to withstand the forces from the suspended sections of the bridge. These walkways enabled people to carry cargo across the river whilst the bridge was open with ships coming through.
Operated by hydraulic steam engines only until recent years, (Since 1976 it uses oil and electricity.) the bascule pivots do not need much force in order to be raised to their maximum angle of 86 degrees. Apart from the removal of the steam engines, the infrastructure of the towers, suspension sections and upper walkways have pretty much stayed in tact since they were built. The upper walkways were closed down to the public in 1910 as people actually preferred to wait and watch while ships came through. It also took on the unpleasant reputation for being a place frequented by pickpockets and prostitutes.
Today, even though there is not much commercial trade on the river, the bridge still opens roughly 1000 times a year. I’ve always personally thought it a lucky omen to be stopped on the bridge when it needs to be raised, even luckier still when you’re first in the queue. (Which has happened to me, and yes, I did act like a complete 5-year old!) However, things do not always run smoothly on Tower Bridge. In December 1952, the number 78 double-decker bus went by unnoticed by a relief watchman when the gates were closed. The side of the bridge that the bus was on started to rise and the bus driver made the split-second decision of putting his foot on the accelerator and clearing a 3-foot drop to the other side of the bridge that had luckily not started to rise. More recently, in 1997, President Clinton’s State car procession got split in half by the opening of the bridge. It caused quite an incident with his security staff. Also, the bridge has been known on the rarest of occasion to malfunction mid-rise.
On a lighter note, when I talk to James Sansom, Marketing Executive of Tower Bridge, he claims that all staff members are allowed to open the bridge at one point in their employment. The other cheap thrill comes when you can stand at the bottom of the Bascule Chamber with your back to the wall. When the bridge is raised, the weights will come roughly 10cm away from your face. (see above picture) Although, I’m sure this is not wholly encouraged.
In 1982 the Tower Bridge Exhibition opened to the public, enabling people to access inside the two towers, to once again cross the upper walkways and a chance to view its original steam engines. In more recent years it has been given a facelift, in readiness for the 2012 London Olympics. The spotlight is sure to fall heavy on all of London’s iconic landmarks. However, I’m sure when current U.S. President Obama next visits, the approach to Tower Bridge will be ever more circumspect.
Tower Bridge is open to visitors. The Upper walkways and Tower Keeper’s Lodge are also available for private hire.
NEXT WEEK’S INSIGHT: Guerilla Gardening with Steve, THE POTHOLE GARDENER