I’ll never forget the first time I saw Tower Bridge. I hadn’t been living in London for very long and I was out taking a walk with some new friends along the river when there it was – the Tower Bridge standing tall and mighty in the middle of the Thames. I wanted to jump up and down and start pointing because, to my amazement, it seemed no one else in the group had noticed it. Why was no one else as starstruck as I was? As I now know a year later, when you live in London long enough, you learn to just accept these famous landmarks as part of the scenery and continue on with your day, but in my newness to the city, I couldn’t hide my excitement. The girls I was with humored me and even took a detour from our path so I could walk across the bridge for the first time. I know it doesn’t sound like much, I mean, I walked across a bridge – big deal, but I felt the same the first time I saw Big Ben in person, too. These locations I’d previously only seen in movies were reminders that this was real, I was finally an expat again in another country. I couldn’t help but be thrilled about that!
I’ve now walked past Tower Bridge no less than two or three dozen times, so that initial thrill of seeing the famous bridge has faded a bit, but it’s still one of my favorite landmarks in the city. This summer, we made an afternoon of it and picnicked beside the bridge on the banks of the Thames before taking the tour that would allow us to go inside Tower Bridge and walk across the pathways connecting the two towers. It’s such a neat experience, as you’ll see in the pictures below. Even more so now with the release of the news last week that glass floors have been added to the West Walkway allowing visitors to get a bird’s eye view from the bridge. The glass path in the East Walkway is expected to be completed next month. (Don’t worry – I hear there are still regular floors on each side of the glass, so if you don’t want to walk across the glass, you don’t have to!)
History of Tower Bridge
At 120 years old, Tower Bridge is a relatively new bridge compared to others in London. By visitors and newcomers to the city, it’s often mistakenly assumed to be London Bridge, but that particular bridge is actually a little further down the river (and a lot less visually pleasing). Tower Bridge gets its name from the Tower of London, the famous castle and fortress it’s adjacent to.
The bridge has had a few facelifts and additions since its opening in 1894 and, thankfully for us, it now has lifts to the top of the towers instead of just stairs. Until 1910 when the towers were closed, people could cross the bridge when the bascules were up (allowing ships to pass through) by climbing the stairs of one tower, walking across the open-air (yikes!) walkways, and then descending down the opposite tower. Sounds like a lot of work, right? I think I’d have just waited for the ship to pass, which is what we all have to do now that the towers are only open to paying visitors.
Inside Tower Bridge
Speaking of paying visitors, if you have a spare £9, that’s all it costs to gain entrance to the Tower Bridge Exhibition. On a family ticket, all three of us were able to enter for £18. We started in the north tower where we took the lift to the top and watched a short video before entering the East Walkway. Small, sliding windows are built into the larger windows along the walkway which is a nice touch for those of us looking to avoid the dreaded window glare in our landscape shots. From this side of the bridge, we could see St Katharine Docks leading to Canary Wharf, but that’s about it. The really spectacular views are on the other side of the bridge.
After checking out the Great Bridges of the World exhibition in the East Walkway, we entered the south tower where we watched another short video before being allowed admittance into the West Walkway. From here, we had a much more scenic view with lots of famous landmarks – St Paul’s Cathedral, the Shard, the Monument, and even a little peek of the London Eye. But the best part of this walkway, for me, was the exhibition running while we were there – The Sixties. This gallery of photos and stories was the reason we made a point to go inside Tower Bridge when we did.
The Sixties Exhibition
I find the 60’s as a decade absolutely fascinating – particularly the music, the clothes, and the radical spirit of the time, which is what The Sixties exhibition was all about. Black and white portraits of 60’s icons as well as important events lined the length of the walkway. I stopped and admired every single one of them, reading the stories and anecdotes that accompanied each photo. To set the mood, music from The Beatles, The Who and many more of my favorite musicians played over the loudspeakers in the walkway. I only wish there’d been more to see. Unfortunately, I believe this exhibition is now closed, but there will be another to replace it as soon as both walkways are open next month.
Victorian Engine Rooms
Once we completed the West Walkway, there was nowhere to go but down beneath the bridge into the old Victorian Engine Rooms. The mechanisms in these rooms were once in charge of lifting the bridge for ships to pass. They are no longer in use, but simulations show how they once operated. In the boiler room, the water was heated to create the steam (they even recreate the heat and smell in this room), then the steam from that was used to pump the big green wheels (totally technical term) to raise the bascules beneath the walkways. Nowadays, the bridge is raised about 1,000 times a year via electricity, and if you time it right, you can see the bascules raised for yourself.
Tower Bridge Lift Times
We didn’t plan it, but as we were leaving, we noticed that the traffic had stopped along the bridge and people were gathering around, and so we joined the masses (this is evidently a popular thing to witness) to watch the bridge raise for the Dixie Queen to pass through. (That’s a pigeon meandering down the road in that last shot, by the way. We watched him walk from the very top of the road to the bottom, like he didn’t even notice he was turning vertical!) If you’re interested, bridge lift times are posted here. Another great spot to watch from would be the banks of the river or, even better, the glass walkways from above!
One more tip – if you want a unique vantage point of Tower Bridge, check it out from the Monument I mentioned above. You can even get a combo ticket for both at the Tower Bridge Exhibition that will save you a little money!
Did you enjoy this article or find it helpful? Save it for later on Pinterest!