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This London structure is so well known and iconic that it’s often used as the symbol for the city. The strikingly beautiful bridge demands attention as it spans the River Thames. And this one does NOT have a song written about it.
Tower Bridge is one of London’s most famous landmarks. And yet, how much do you know about it?
Check out these ten curiosities about London’s Tower Bridge, and find out!
Tower Bridge Stats
Before sharing the curious facts about Tower Bridge, let’s look at the amazing stats.
It took 432 construction workers eight years to build Tower Bridge. Due to London’s growing population, Tower Bridge was constructed to make it easier for people to cross the Thames. Construction began on June 21, 1886 and finished on June 30, 1894.
The bridge contains more than 11,000 tons of steel. The foundation needed 70,000 tons of concrete to adequately support the bridge. And the structure contains more than 31 million bricks and 2 million rivets.
At the time of construction, the cost was a staggering 1.84 million pounds. Today the cost equivalent equals 152 million pounds.
Now check out the curiosities.
Not That Bridge with a Song
Tower Bridge is frequently mistaken for London Bridge. That more plain bridge is located further upriver. Because Tower Bridge is so eye catching, it’s understandable that people think it’s London Bridge. I actually made that mistake myself, labeling Tower Bridge photos incorrectly when I returned home from my trip.
London Bridge dates back to 1176. The site has supported a succession of bridges, with the latest one completed in 1971. Read more about this structure HERE.
In 1876, the City of London held a competition for the design of the new bridge. Although architects submitted more than 50 designs, none were selected.
Finally, seven years later in 1884, architect Sir Horace Jones and civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry submitted a winning design. Sir Horace is also the architect behind some of London’s most beautiful buildings including Leadenhall Market, Smithfield Market and Billingsgate Market.
Sadly, Sir Horace died before his bridge was completed.
What are Bascules?
Tower Bridge is a levered bridge, meaning it opens up to allow for the passage of ships navigating down the river.
The two levered sections are called bascules, a French word meaning “see saw”. The 1,100 ton bascules, located in the center of the bridge, raise up to a 83 degree angle. It takes approximately five minutes for them to raise completely.
There’s a huge cavern beneath the bridge containing counterweights that operate the bridge. This unique space is sometimes used to host concerts, due to the incredible acoustics.
The bascules used to operate using coal burning steam engines. Currently a combination of oil and electricity power the levers.
Where Did the Name Come From?
Since London already had a namesake bridge, this structure needed a different name.
The Tower Bridge name comes from its proximity to the Tower of London, located just across the river. Although the bridge isn’t as old as it’s made to look, it does intentionally match the architecture of the famous, and much older, Tower of London.
The original Tower Bridge featured a drab brown exterior.
In 1977 the colors changed to red, white and blue to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. Since then the bridge has undergone another major facelift. Between 2008 and 2016 the bridge was painted the current colors of bright blue and white.
The bridge gets a facelift every 25 years.
Prostitutes and Pickpockets
Originally, the bridge’s two high level walkways allowed pedestrians to cross when the bascules were open. However, people had to climb flights of stairs to use the walkways and then climb back down stairs in the opposite tower. Most preferred to simply wait for the ship to pass through.
The walkways fell into disrepair and became a sort of red light district in London. Ladies of the night and pickpockets gathered on the walkways, looking for business. The walkways closed in 1910, reopening later as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition.
In 2014, the Tower Bridge Exhibition launched the Glass Walkway. The west high level walkway now features a glass bottom, where visitors can admire the bridge from a unique angle and watch pedestrians and ships passing below.
Special events, such as doggie days and even yoga classes, are held on the glass walkway. Yoga classes take place at sunrise, 42 meters above the River Thames.
You can also book the walkways for your special wedding…if you are willing to pay the hefty price. Tables are set up along the glass walkway, for a one of a kind reception after saying “I do”. The Tower Bridge Victorian engine rooms are also available for special receptions and events. Imagine the gorgeous photos!
Tower Bridge has experienced some exciting moments.
In 1912 a pilot named Frank McClean flew his short biplane between the bascules and the walkways, during an emergency. He made it through without damaging the bridge or his airplane.
And Thomas Hans Orde-Lees jumped off the bridge in 1917, safely parachuting into the River Thames. He wanted to show the benefits of RAF pilots using parachutes. His stunt is considered the momentum for the founding of the Royal Parachute Regiment. Apparently there’s even a film of the stunt.
Most outrageous of all, a London double decker bus began crossing the bridge in 1952 as it suddenly started opening to allow a ship to pass through. Driver Albert Gunter stayed calm, pressed the pedal to the floor and jumped the widening gap. He made it safely.
Albert received a day off for his quick thinking and 10 pounds.
Right of Way
More than 40,000 people use the Tower Bridge every day, crossing on foot and in cars. However, ships on the river always have right of way. Ship captains must give the bridge 24 hours notice of their approach. And then everyone, no matter who they are, must wait for the bridge bascules to raise, the ship to pass through, and the bascules to lower again.
The bascules raise twice a day, on average, for the passage of ships. It’s considered lucky to see the levers rise.
You might catch the bascules raising on this London webcam.
Experience the Bridge
It’s free to walk across Tower Bridge. If you want to explore the towers or snap photos from the glass walkway, there is a fee for that. Within the towers are interactive history exhibits. The admission fee includes a visit to the Victorian engine rooms as well.
Or you can admire the structure from several vantage points along the River Thames. We took photos from the nearby Tower of London. The bridge is definitely a gorgeous sight. I want to explore it further, on my next visit.
Did you learn anything new about Tower Bridge? What curiosity surprised you the most?
Tower Bridge Finds from Amazon:
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