One of London’s most symbolic structures and one of the most famous bridges in the world, Tower Bridge is a must-stop photo opportunity for almost every visitor to the capital, and should be included on your London tour.
But there’s so much more to this fascinating bridge than meets the eye. History, purpose, function and a stunning example of Victorian architecture, Tower Bridge has a character all of its own.
If you’re planning to visit this treasured and iconic London landmark, here’s everything you need to know about Tower Bridge.
Tower Bridge is not as old as many assume. This is probably because it is often confused with London Bridge further downstream, which has existed in one form or another for 2,000 years. Tower Bridge only dates back to the late 19th century.
In 1876, the City of London Corporation faced the challenge of constructing one more river crossing due to the high level of traffic arising from London’s East End commercial development. However, a traditional ‘fixed’ bridge couldn’t be built as it would disrupt the river traffic activities and cut off access to the port between London Bridge and the Tower of London.
Faced with this dilemma, a ‘Special Bridge or Subway Committee’ was formed and a design competition was announced to the public. The committee, chaired by Sir Albert Joseph Altman received over 50 ideas for consideration.
It wasn’t until 1884 that a final design was approved. Engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry, together with city architect Horace Jones designed a Gothic styled ‘bascule’ suspension bridge with two towers at both ends connected by 2 horizontal walkways. The hydraulically powered bascules could be raised to allow sailing ships to pass.
After receiving the go ahead from Parliament, the construction finally got underway in 1886. It took eight years, five major contractors and over 430 construction workers to build the bridge.
Horace Jones died in 1886 and was replaced by George D. Stevenson, who designed the Victorian Gothic framework in Cornish granite and Portland stone to match the look of the bridge with the Tower of London. The bridge was officially opened on 30 June 1894 by Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and his wife, Alexandra.
Facts and Figures
• The total cost of construction was £1,184,000 (around £120m today).
• The bridge is supported by two massive piers containing 70,000 tonnes of concrete sunk deep into the riverbed.
• The framework of the bridge, including the towers and walkways, consists of over 11,000 tonnes of steel.
• 31,000,000 bricks were used to construct the bridge.
• It takes just five minutes for each bascule to rise to their highest level (86 degree angle).
• Each tower is 213 ft. high.
• The total length of the bridge is 800 ft. long.
• The bridge connects Tower Hamlets on the north side with Southwark on the south side of the River Thames.
• The weight limit for vehicles crossing the bridge is 18 tonnes.
• The speed limit for vehicles crossing the bridge is 20 mph.
• The bascules are raised approximately three times a day.
• Around 40,000 motorists, cyclists and pedestrians cross the bridge every day.
• In 1974, the hydraulic steam-powered machines to raise the bascules were replaced with an electro-hydraulic system.
• In 2000, a remote computer-controlled raising system was installed.
• The bridge underwent a massive renovation project between 2008 and 2012. It now has a state-of-the-art protective coating system consisting of six layers of paint, and energy-efficient LED lighting.
Did You Know?
• The high-level, open-air walkways weren’t very popular when the bridge first opened. Due to the number of steps and dark lighting, they soon became the regular haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets. In a bid to rid the bridge of unsavoury types, the walkways were closed in 1910. They were re-opened in 1982 with an admission fee.
• In 1912, pilot Francis McClean, during an emergency, flew his Short Brothers floatplane between the bascules and the high-level walkways to avoid an accident.
• In 1952 as the number 78 bus was passing over the bridge, the process of ringing a warning bell failed, and the bridge began to open. The driver Albert Gunton, accelerated and managed to ‘jump’ the bus over a 3 ft. gap. There were no serious injuries and Albert was awarded £10 by the City Corporation for his bravery.
• In 1968, Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, in protest at the lack of aerial displays for the 50th anniversary of the RAF, flew a Hawker Hunter jet three times around the Houses of Parliament before flying under the top span of Tower Bridge. He was arrested on landing and discharged from the RAF.
• In 1977, Tower Bridge (originally painted brown) was re-painted red, white and blue in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
• Ships always have the priority. In 1997, Bill Clinton’s presidential motorcade was split between bascules when the bridge opened to allow Thames sailing barge Gladys to pass. A Tower Bridge spokesman said they had tried to contact the American Embassy about the scheduled opening but ‘they wouldn’t answer the phone’.
• In 2012, Tower Bridge became a symbol for the 2012 London Olympics. A set of Olympic rings weighing 13 tonnes were suspended from the bridge and the west walkway was transformed into a live music sculpture featuring 30 classical musicians positioned along the entire length of the bridge.
• Vessels don’t have to pay for the bridge to be opened. Passage is free for ships that are over nine metres in height, although 24 hours notice is required.
• When the bridge was first built, there were concerns that horses wouldn’t be able to pull their carts up the incline to the bridge, so horses were stabled at the bridge to provide extra help if needed.
• In Victorian times, so many dead bodies were washed up under the north side of Tower Bridge that it was nicknamed ‘dead man’s hole’. A mortuary was built at the bridge to temporarily house the bodies until they were collected by the coroner. Although the mortuary is long gone, visitors can still see a ‘dead man’s hole’ sign at the base of the bridge on the East side.
• As an iconic symbol of London, Tower Bridge has featured as a backdrop in many films and television series including Doctor Who, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Independence Day: Resurgence.
Visiting Tower Bridge
There’s so much more to visiting Tower Bridge than meets the eye. As well as seeing the magnificent Victorian Gothic architecture up close, visitors can also step inside and find out about the history of the famous bridge while enjoying breathtaking views of London at the Tower Bridge Exhibition.
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Travel back in time to the 19th century inside the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Entry is via a grand Victorian staircase or a four-level lift that will take you up to the north tower. The exhibition is fully accessible for all and is fully equipped for disabled visitors.
Visitors can learn about the construction of the bridge inside the Exhibition Room, which displays photos, exhibits and films including some of the 50 designs that were submitted.
The Exhibition also hosts family days each month with hands-on interactive family-friendly activities to encourage exploration and imaginative learning. If you’re visiting with children, be sure to download the family trail app beforehand. It includes games, stories about the bridge’s history and fun interactive functions younger visitors will love.
The walkways are the settings for Tots at Tower Bridge play sessions held for younger children. Tower Bridge also holds regular yoga sessions on the glass floor walkways for both adults and children throughout the year.
There are British Sign Language guided tours the last Saturday of every month at 11am, for hearing-impaired visitors. And there are also early opening Autism Friendly sessions throughout the year.
Glass Floor Walkway
The highlights of the Tower Bridge Exhibition are the incredible high-level glass floor walkways on the east and west sides of the bridge leading from the north tower to the south tower.
The glass floors allow visitors a unique and spectacular view of London from138 ft. above the River Thames. Made up of six half-tonne panels on each level, the glass floors are perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of the bridge below, and maybe even a bridge lifting if you’re lucky to be there when one’s scheduled.
If you’d rather not look down, the walkways offer spectacular panoramic views of London including famous landmarks such as the Tower of London, HMS Belfast, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument.
On the east walkway visitors can enjoy the Great Bridges of the World exhibition featuring 40 of the most famous bridges around the world.
Victorian Engine Rooms
The exhibition includes a tour of the Victorian Engine Rooms, where visitors can learn about the unsung heroes of Tower Bridge and learn about the working history of the bridge and those who worked here. Over 80 workers were needed to maintain the bridge, which would have been raised around 20-30 times a day at the end of the 19th century.
Explore the coal-driven steam engines and experience the noise and smells of the historic steam engines that once powered the mighty bascules.
• If you want to coincide your glass floor walk with a bridge lifting, the daily bridge lift times can be found on the official Tower Bridge website.
• Before you visit Tower Bridge, make sure you download the free app that includes a 360-degree video of the bridge being raised. You can also perform your own virtual bridge lift!
• The bridge and exhibition are fully accessible and equipped for disabled visitors. There are two lifts, one in the north tower and one in the south. Wheelchairs are also available to borrow.
• Toilets are located in both towers and the engine rooms. Disabled toilets are located in the south tower and the engine rooms.
• Benches are located along the walkways, in the towers and in the engine rooms.
• Blue uniformed staff are available for information and guidance throughout the exhibition.
• Glass bottles and glass items are not permitted near the glass floor.
• One of the best vantage points to snap a photograph of the bridge and watch one of the bridge lifts from afar, is on the South Bank or just in front of the Tower of London on the north side.
• The Tower Bridge Exhibition also features a gift shop. If you don’t have time to browse on the day, the official Tower Bridge website also has an online store.
Exhibition Opening Times and Admission Prices
Summer Opening Hours: April to September, 10.00 – 17.30 (last admission)
Winter Opening Hours: October to March, 09.30 – 17.00 (last admission)
Closed 24 – 26 December
Standard ticket prices (as of May 2018)
Child (5 – 15) £4.20
Disabled, Students, Seniors £6.80
Under 5s FREE
Family, group (10 or more), and joint Tower Bridge and The Monument ticket discounts are available.
How to get there
The main entrance and ticket office are based in the northwest tower. The Victorian engine rooms can be found on the south side at ground level. A blue painted line connects the two parts of the exhibition.
The nearest transport links to Tower Bridge are:
Routes 15, 42, 78, 100 and RV1 all stop at Tower Bridge.
To access the north side of the bridge: Tower Hill Station (District and Circle lines).
To access the south side of the bridge: London Bridge Station (Northern and Jubilee lines).
The nearest stations within walking distance to the bridge are London Bridge, Fenchurch Street, and Tower Gateway DLR.
Riverboats stop at St Katherine Pier and Tower Pier on the north bank and at London Bridge City Pier on the south side.
The nearest car park is located at Tower Hill coach and car park, 50 Lower Thames Street, London EC3R 6DP, next to the Tower of London.
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