Tower Bridge has been open to visitors for twenty years now. I have visited once before, but it was perhaps a decade or so ago. It seemed a good time to refresh my memory and take my seven-year-old niece for an interesting day out. Situated right next to the Tower of London, the bridge can be a bit overshadowed by its glorious neighbour, which is a shame, because it has its own fascinating history.
Tower Bridge took eight years to build, opening in 1894, but it had been in the making much longer. London desperately needed another route across the Thames to ease the terrible congestion that occurred daily. London Bridge was the most easterly crossing for pedestrians and traffic, but it could barely cope with the huge increase as the population soared. A new bridge was necessary, but with lots of different opinions and interests it took many years to come to any agreement. A committee was established in 1876; after ten years of discussion, building began. The final design was a collaborative effort between Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry. Between them, this architect and engineer perfected the plans for the bascule bridge we see today.
It's an awesome feat of imagination and engineering, and being allowed to take a look inside the towers and the engine room feels like a privilege. The first thing that happens once inside is a 42-foot lift ride up the North Tower. At the top is a short film starring Queen Victoria, Jones and Barry (well, actors playing them anyway). It gives a very accessible introduction to the issues leading up to the bridge being built. Then it's on to my highlight of the visit: the walk along the two walkways that connect the towers. It is amazing to be walking high above the Thames, with excellent views up and down the river. There are plenty of viewing windows that open, allowing for great photo opportunities. Handy information boards show you the landmarks to look out for, too.
Currently there are two photographic exhibitions lining the two walkways, one on bridges of the world, the other about Olympic cities. The photos of the bridges are very impressive, showing off some stunning feats of engineering from around the world. My niece really enjoyed these, and we made a list of places we'd like to visit, including Shanghai, Avignon and Venice. Both walkways also have lots of information boards about the bridge itself and the surrounding area. There's a second short film in the South Tower, showing a time-lapse animation of the bridge's construction. This was four minutes very well spent, especially when, at the end, the bridge finally lifts in all its glory.
After we'd gazed out east and west to our heart's content, we walked about two-thirds of the way down the South Tower stairs, until we met the lift to take us back down to street level. It's then a short walk outside to the engine room. Inside here are the original workings of the bridge, a steam and hydraulic powered marvel that could lift the bridge in about a minute. One of the engines is up and running, giving an insight into the power required. The engine room is quiet and calm now; I can only imagine how noisy, hot and frantic it used to be in the days of coal. I must confess that all this machinery is very impressive, but perhaps not exactly to my taste. My niece, however, loved it all.
Tower Bridge is a very interesting place to visit. It is the high point of Victorian innovation and engineering, and an incredibly elegant solution to the problem of increasing the volume of road traffic without compromising the ships' passage. There is a lot of information available to read, but I would have quite liked a bit more at the beginning, either as part of the video presentation or even a talk from a guide. It is definitely worth a visit though, and the views are hard to beat.
Tower Bridge is a fun trip for children. The introductory video is aimed at a younger audience, and sets out the argument for why the bridge was built as well as the dicussions that were had over the design. Some of the information boards are child-friendly, with facts and pictures. There are also some interactive screens with a variety of quizzes about London landmarks, the bridge itself and British history. These are excellent, and the seven-year-old I visited with enjoyed playing them very much. There are just enough questions to make it a worthwhile activity, but not so many that it ruins the flow of the visit. It can be a little difficult for little ones to get the most of the views though – they do need to be picked up, otherwise they miss out.
The engine room is excellent, especially for slightly older children who can read the explanations of the machinery independently. There are also some very good models that demonstrate how the bridge worked originally as well as now with new automated technology. A couple of other exhibits allow you to see and feel for yourself how the mechanisms work.
A really nice touch is the Tower Bridge passport all the children are given at the entrance. As they go around the exhibition, they collect stickers from a series of checkpoints, which decorate their passport. This was very popular with my companion! There is also a small gift shop that actually does have pocket money souvenirs suitable for youngsters. Overall my niece was very enthusiastic about the trip, and said she would go again. That's a successful day out in my book.
Visit Tower Bridge Exhibition and discover its colourful history from Victorian times to the present day. Films and interactive displays in the Towers and the high-level Walkways provide insights into how and why the Bridge came into existence.
From the Walkways, 42 meters above the River Thames, visitors can admire stunning panoramic views, spying such popular London landmarks as St Paul's Cathedral and the Monument to the west and St Katharine's Dock leading to Canary Wharf to the east.
After watching a short video about why Tower Bridge was built, guests can make their way to the East Walkway which houses the exhibition 'Great Bridges of the World'. This photographic exhibition features over 20 Bridges, each of which represents a breathtaking feat of engineering.
In the south tower a new animation shows the construction of the Bridge, before guests proceed to the West Walkway where they can view the River Thames: Source to Sea Exhibition. This amazing and beautiful photographic exhibition tracks the River Thames from Thames Head near Cirencester to the open waters of the Thames Estuary.
Continue on to the original lifting machinery in the Victorian Engine Rooms, complete with sounds and smells that transport you back in time to the Bridge's origins. You will also experience a virtual Bridge lift, providing you with a unique view of the Bascules being raised.
Guests can also experience the amazing daredevil stunt performed by freestyle motocross star Robbie Maddison. The early hours of the 13th July 2009 saw him perform a spectacular back flip between the open bascules of the Bridge, soaring nearly 100ft over the Thames. This exciting display situated in the Victorian Engine Rooms includes footage of the jump as well as the actual bike itself!
Tower Bridge ExhibitionTower Bridge Rd
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 2UP
April - September
Last admission 17:30
October - March
Last admission 17:00
Closed 24-26 December and open from 12:00 on 1 January
Tower Bridge Exhibition © City of London