London Style: Tower Bridge and the Engine Rooms

A few weeks ago, my lovely sister-in-law, Mona, came to visit us. It was so much fun to re-visit so many of our favorite places in the city like the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, and Windsor Castle. But what also made her visit so nice was the opportunity to tour things I haven’t done yet.

I have walked by the famous and picturesque Tower Bridge several times over the 2+ years we have lived here, but I knew very little about it. In fact, all I knew was that Tower Bridge was next to the Tower of London. Makes sense, right? Well, there is a lot more to it than just that.

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Tower Bridge from the Tower of London compound.

Tower Bridge began construction in 1886 due to increased population and development on the East End, but copying a traditional bridge like Waterloo or London Bridge would not do the job because they needed to allow sailing ships to come and go in the “Pool of London.” So, a massive drawbridge had to be constructed making Tower Bridge one of the most ambitious endeavors 19th century London would go through.

After nine years of deliberations and ideas, Sir Horace Jones, the current city architect, won the bid and construction began, and it took a further eight years to finish the structure with 432 employees. The two piers holding up the two massive towers took 70,000 tons of concrete. The towers and walkways needed 11,000 tons of steel, and Cornish granite and Portland stone was brought in from Scotland to put on the appealing facade that mirrored the Tower of London.

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The many stairs up to the walkways.

In today’s money, the bridge cost £120 million.

The bridge opened on June 30, 1894 by the Prince of Wales, Edward, and his wife, Alexandra (the future King Edward VII affectionately named Bertie). Tower Bridge did replace the Tower Tube, which lost popularity to the bridge because there was no toll cost over the water. Eventually, the “tube” closed in 1898.

Interestingly, the high up walkways were closed in 1910 because prostitutes and petty thieves frequented the narrow stairways. That, of course, has now changed since the Tower Bridge Exhibition is one of the more popular places to see in London.

To walk the walk-way costs £9 per person (but is less if you purchase the London Pass and £8 if you buy online). We were fortunate to have a broken lift the day we went, so we climbed all the way to the top, enjoying each step up (after enjoying the 500+ stairs at St. Paul’s Cathedral a couple days before).

About halfway up, there is a small exhibit room with minimal information regarding the bridge, but by this point, you’re not there to learn about the history of the bridge. You want to see the glass floor in the walkway.

I was so excited to see it. But Mona was cautious. It made me giggle a bit because I couldn’t wait to jump up and down on the glass as I looked straight down to the Thames underfoot. I will say, if there weren’t tiny black dots in the glass, I may have been a little more freaked out. But on the other hand, if I am to be scared by looking straight down to a normally certain death, I would want nothing in my field of vision. The tiny dots hindered the illusion. But I jumped up and down scaring poor Mona and another guy behind us who couldn’t bring himself to let go of the railing behind him just to stand still over the bridge.

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It was fun to jump up and down on the glass. The guys off to the right made us giggle as they hung on for dear life.

We took copious pictures above the glass walkway and meandered our way across the passage. There are two monitors that have you stop and listen to informational videos about the construction of the bridges, and then you make your way to the other walkway for a different view of the London skyline. You can get a lovely shot of the Shard, City Hall, and Gherkin. The Thames is splayed in front of you with the HMS Belfast parked in all its glory.

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Mona and me laying on the glass!

We started our descent, which was actually an elevator ride back to bridge level. You continue to walk across the bridge with the other cars and pedestrians, but then you walk down a side staircase to get into a second exhibition telling you all about the engines that operate the drawbridge.

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The few of the Thames and the Shard from the walkways.

During the Second World War, a third engine was put in place in case substantial damage was done, but in the 1970s, the engine became redundant and is now on display at the Forncett Industrial Steam Museum. When you walk into the second area, you’re first met with massive working green engines. The smell of grease and oil is overwhelming, but it’s interesting to see how huge these machines are. Now, what you see are not the current hydraulics but what were used before.

Past the engines, you get to a short film about how the hydraulics work in raising and lowering the bridge. It takes 90 seconds for the bridge to raise fully and can stop traffic for miles and miles depending on the time of day. If you check out the website, you can see the times the bridge is raised. So, definitely check it out and see how many cursing commuters you can spot on any given day.

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Tower Bridge was actually pretty cool to see from the riverside and the air, but what you pay for really is the glass walkway and the views. The rest of the exhibit is so small that you can learn anything you want to know about the historic bridge online.

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