Tourist Stuff: Tower Bridge

Monday, August 8, 2011

You may recall that last week I had buy a new bike (and mudguards and kickstand and helmet and TWO new locks...).  Forgive me if it seems like I've been banging on about this whole bike business for ages what with the accident first and the theft second but lately, and with apologies to Lance, it really has been all about the bike.  One of the many annoying things about having to buy a new bike is that the particular bike I wanted to buy (ie: the cheapest one possible) required schlepping all the way out to Canada Water.  Despite its obviously excellent name Canada Water is a bit far-flung, and the area surrounding the bike shop is a something of a wasteland if one wants to, say, sit and have a nice cup of coffee while one's mudguards are being fitted.  And considering I was sort of cranky to begin with because of the whole need to go to Canada Water and spend a bunch of money on a new bike in the first place, I was not in a brilliantly cheery frame of mind by the time I was ready to leave on the aforementioned new bike.

(Brief aside about Canada Water, 'cause I know someone is going to ask: Canada Water is a small, man-made freshwater lake which is now a wildlife refuge.  It's located in an area called Rotherhithe on the south side of the river, which is in one of the funny bloopy bits of land created by the meandering Thames (similar to the Isle of Dogs on the other side, or North Greenwich, farther to the east.).  Rotherhithe is part of the area generally known as the Docklands, so named because it used to be the hub of the commercial shipping in London, hence there were a lot of docks.  Canada Water is named after Canada Dock, which handled most of the shipping traffic from Venezuela.)

So I was at Canada Water and though my mood was dark the day was exceptionally warm and sunny.  And it was Sunday afternoon.  And despite sleeping in to a shockingly late hour and then dawdling to the local shop to buy the aforementioned helmet and locks and then trekking to Canada Water and faffing around with mudguards and other paraphernalia, I actually finished up and cycled off just after 1:00pm.  With an unexpectedly free afternoon in front of me I decided to try and salvage the day by having a nice lunch and then play tourist by checking out something that's been on the list for ages and was (sort of) on my way home anyway: Tower Bridge.

See?  I really do live here!  (Also: check out that hippie hair!)
As I've said before, Tower Bridge is probably my favourite sight in London (and possibly my favourite bridge
ever).  The origins of the bridge date to the late 19th century when "the East End of London became so densely populated that public need mounted for a new bridge to the east of London Bridge, as journeys for pedestrians and vehicles were being delayed by hours." (from the Tower Bridge website).  Never ones to miss the opportunity for a bit of bureaucracy, those crafty Victorians created the "Special Bridge or Subway Committee", which was formed in 1876 and opened a public competition soliciting designs for the new river crossing.  Because it was critical that the new bridge allow tall-masted ships to access the areas upstream, designers were forced to employ and odd array of schemes to achieve that goal.  More than 50 designs were submitted, my favourite of which is this bizarre offering from E. J. Palmer:

Crazy Bridge
It looks like it has the advantage of allowing traffic to continue flowing while ships are passing through, but also has the significant disadvantage of looking like someone has dropped a giant pair of 3D specs across the Thames.
Luckily good sense prevailed and the design submitted by Horace Jones was chosen. I say good sense because I personally love the design of Tower Bridge.  Yes, it does kind of look like a cross between a Meccano set and a wedding cake, but isn't that its charm?  Apparently not everyone thinks so, since one opinion at the time stated that "A more absurd structure than the Tower Bridge was never thrown across a strategic river".  Spoilsport.

Jones’s design for Tower Bridge was (and still is) a combination bascule and suspension bridge.  "Bascule" is a French term for see saw and is used, I suppose, because referring to something so big and impressive as a "see saw" seems a bit undignified.  So the centre section of the bridge that lifts to allow shipping traffic to pass through is the bascule section, and the side approaches are suspension bridges.  The side suspension bits  (and their two million rivets) were originally brown but were painted a jaunty combination of red, white and light blue for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, and remain so today.

There is nothing interesting to say about this photo. It just illustrates my point.  Also, I had to wait a couple of minutes to take it because a woman in a sari was standing in the way.  (I told you there was nothing interesting...)
The pulling forces that act on the side suspension cables on the towers are counteracted by two elevated walkways between the towers, which, beside performing a vital structural function, also allowed pedestrians to cross the bridge while it was open.  That is to say, it allowed particularly energetic pedestrians who were presumably on very a tight schedule to climb up to a height of 116' above the roadway and then back down the other side.  Unsurprisingly few people chose this option rather than simply waiting for the roadway to descend and the walkways soon "gained an unpleasant reputation as a haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets" (Wikipedia).  They were closed to the public in 1910, a mere 16 years after the bridge was officially opened.  The walkways remained closed until 1982 when they were refurbished to become part of the "Tower Bridge Experience" for which I paid £8 last Sunday.

(Another brief aside: Why must everything these days be an "experience"?  First of all, it's smarmy and pretentious.  Second, it's completely unnecessary.  Redundant, even.  Everything we do every day is an experience, so why is something with an admission price and a gift shop so much more EXPERIENTIAL than anything else that it's very EXPERIENTIALNESS has to be pointed out? Pfftt....)

So yeah, I EXPERIENCED the walkways, which are lined with some diverting displays about the bridge, and about other famous bridges of the world, and do allow you some pretty excellent views along the Thames.

Spot The Shard, the London Eye, the Tate Modern, HMS Belfast, the BT Tower, and St. Paul's (The walkways and rooms inside the towers are also available to rent for special occasions like weddings, which I think is great, though probably eye-wateringly expensive.  Still, if I ever get married I think I’m doing it at Tower Bridge.  Anyone free?)
Also part of the Tower Bridge Experience is a trip into the old engine rooms that used to drive the bridge's bascules, which was bloody excellent.  Sadly, the old steam machinery is no longer used to raise and lower the bridge - that's now done with hydraulics powered by electric motors.  The nice thing about this is that it means you can now get a close up look at the old Victorian steam engine, and there's nothing like a good old Victorian steam engine I always say.  Or is that just me?  Am I the only one who loves to watch the smooth-running, spinning, whirring, clicking, ratcheting splendor of a good bit of giant cast iron machinery? Perhaps I'm actually a six year old boy at heart. Then again, how could you not love this:

I particularly love the paint job, and the diamond-shaped spinning thing that looks a bit like an astrolabe and is probably called something like an Encapsulated Boggs-Flinder Compensator.

The steam engines didn't drive the bascules directly.  Instead, the pressure they created was used to raise two enormous accumulators, which are essentially Big Heavy Things.  By pushing the Big Heavy Things up in the air, much energy was stored so that the bridge could be raised or lowered at a moment's notice by allowing the Big Heavy Things to descend on cue and thereby push water through the system.  Clever Victorians!

Ok, I'll stop talking about steam engines and accumulators and the splendor of polished brass Encapsulated Boggs-Flinder Compensators now.  Instead, how about a wacky story from 1952?  Back then a gateman used to ring a warning bell to stop the flow of traffic before the bascules would be raised.  On one day in December the warning system failed when a relief watchman was on duty.  The failure occurred just as the #78 bus was approaching the split between the bridge decks from the south.  As the bridge started to rise, the driver, the extremely plucky Albert Gunter, made a split-second decision, stomped on the accelerator of his double-decker, and jumped the bus across to the northern side.  There were no injuries. And it’s not like the guy was driving a stunt motorcycle, or even something so nimble as an Austin Mini.  He was driving a freakin’ double decker bus.  Albert Gunter, you rock.

(One more aside: I have taken the #78 Shoreditch bus traveling north across Tower Bridge and nothing even remotely that interesting happened.)

Another wacky Tower Bridge anecdote:  In 1997, President Bill Clinton's motorcade arrived slightly late for its bridge crossing.  Below, the sailing barge Gladys arrived bang on time and the bridge was duly raised for her, thus cutting Clinton’s motorcade in half.  The president’s security staff were naturally rattled by this turn of events, but could do nothing but wait until the bridge was lowered again. A spokesman for Tower Bridge was quoted as saying, "We tried to contact the American Embassy, but they wouldn't answer the 'phone." (Wikipedia).  Ha! 

Those same bridge decks still lift about 1000 times every year since they reopened in April after a multi-million pound refurbishment.  Want to hear something else I love about Tower Bridge?  Naval traffic still takes precedence over road traffic (presidential or otherwise), and ships do not pay to have the bridge raised; they simply have to give 24 hours notice.  The schedule for lifting can be found here, where the SB Gladys still makes regular appearances.

And there you have it – Tower Bridge.  It rescued my Sunday afternoon, and I hope it brightened your Monday morning.

One last look at the fairytale brilliance of Tower Bridge 

P.S.  If you want to see all the photos I took at Tower Bridge that afternoon, check out the Tower Bridge set at Flickr, where you can also find sets for the Lambeth Country Show and the Tate Modern, and the Royal Wedding, and Postman’s Park… Hmmm, perhaps I should have mentioned this Flickr set thing sooner…
P.P.S.  The route of the London Marathon crosses Tower Bridge, which is another reason for me to get off my ass and start training properly again, except that the 2012 race is already full.  Phew.


Dyanne@TravelnLass said...

"Phew" is right. I've just had the "Pam Experience" this Monday morn. I can't believe I just waded through a near 2k treatise on an obscure bridge in England - and (as usual) enjoyed every blessed word of it!

btw, is it just me? Or has your writing taken on (even more) of a British lilt these days (evidence: "banging about", "plucky", "jaunty", etc.) That, and your new hippie "do"! ;)

P.S. Thanks again for the tips on Hanoi.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"an obscure bridge in England"

LOL. Literally. This is obviously some new meaning of the word "obscure" I had not previously encountered. This surely has to be the single most instantly recognisable and famous river crossing anywhere in the world. Even the Golden Gate bridge looks a lot like several other suspension bridges (e.g. Verrazano Narrows), but this says "London, England" as surely as a picture of Big Ben or a red bus.

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