Iconic structures abound in London. But you can make a good argument that none is more recognizable, or better captures the city’s Victorian architectural style, than the beautiful Tower Bridge over the River Thames.
Chances are, you will probably be here more than once during your visit to London. Just like Big Ben, it’s worth making several visits to the bridge, at different times of the day, if for no other reason than to stand, stare, and attempt to grasp the reality that you are, indeed, in London, England.
Evening is a great time to make at least one of those visits. You’re going to want to take a look at the bridge from both banks of the River Thames…
… and of course, walk across the bridge itself. I haven’t enjoyed walking across a bridge so much, since visiting the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Despite its age — the Tower Bridge opened in 1894 — the old structure still carries cars and pedestrians across the River Thames. As one of those pedestrians, you’ll get to enjoy an up-close look at the bridge’s architecture…
… and its well-built steel framework.
You can even stand in the middle of the crosswalk, at the northern end of the bridge, for a nice perspective on the rush of traffic that crosses the bridge, even at night.
Tower Bridge Exhibition
If the Tower Bridge was just a beautiful, 115+ year-old bridge, it would be plenty impressive. But this old bridge has moving parts. It’s a drawbridge, that still opens and closes. And luckily, everyone has the chance to see what makes it tick, on the inside.
The Tower Bridge Exhibition includes admission into the bridge’s two central towers, and the footbridge that connects the two, as well as the engine rooms where all the raw power is generated to open and close the bridge. The tour begins at the northern tower, where you pay your admission fee (£8 for adults, £3.40 for children 5-15, or use your London Pass for free admission), then board an elevator which takes you up into the tower.
Step off the lift, and you’re surrounded by the guts of the bridge, looking at the huge steel beams that have held the structure together for more than a century. You can stop here to watch a short film about the bridge, but I had arrived so close to closing time (around 5:30 p.m.) that I didn’t have time to spare.
Before heading out onto the walkways that connect the two towers…
… I peeked out a window, looking north into the City of London. The Tower of London is on the left.
There are two enclosed walkways. The eastern one gives you a great view down the River Thames, towards the booming business area of Canary Wharf, where some of London’s tallest towers have sprung up. The Docklands are also in this direction, as well as Greenwich and the entire Eastern Hemisphere.
The western view won’t be quite as spectacular, if (like me) you’re visiting in the late afternoon. Despite the sun getting in the way, you can still see the outline of the Shard London Bridge tower, which was under construction during my visit in May, 2011.
The view of the City of London is a little better, though I had a tough time getting a good shot through the tiny windows in the walls of the enclosed walkway — which, by the way, is quite stuffy on a hot day.
Once you’ve reached the south tower, take the stairs down to the street level, then follow the blue line on the sidewalk. It will lead you to the southern end of the bridge, and…
… to another staircase, which takes you below street-level, into the engine rooms.
The Tower Bridge is no longer powered by steam, but between 1894 and 1974, these boilers created up to 750 p.s.i. of pressure…
… which operated two 360-horsepower steam engines, in the next room. A third engine was added during World War II, as a backup. After the update in 1974 the backup engine was no longer needed and was moved to a museum in Forncett, England.
Continue walking through the museum…
… and you’ll arrive at the accumulators — giant weights that pushed down on the water, creating pressure. When it was time to open the bridge, the pressure created by the accumulators forced water through the pipes, driving the bascule drive engines that opened the bridge.
At the end of the tour, just before exiting the engine rooms, there’s another chance to sit and watch a short film about the bridge. I stopped to watch it, mostly because I needed to rest my feet. But my rest didn’t last long. A bridge employee came through, telling everyone that the drawbridge would be opening in about a half-hour, and suggested we all find a good spot to watch it. I walked a short distance from the bridge, found an ideal spot, and set up my camera to record a time-lapse video of this event (which only happens a few times a day).
Even if you don’t tour the inner workings of the Tower Bridge, you will still want to spend some time outside…
… taking pictures from various angles…
… of this beautiful bridge.