Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I have a knack for living in cities with famous bridges. First there was San Francisco, home of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Then came San Diego with its curvaceous Coronado Bridge. After that was Paris with the not-so-new Pont Neuf. Last came London, where there were plenty of famous bridges to choose from. Perhaps the most well-known of them is a Victorian masterpiece. Last week I was lucky enough to go on a private tour of Tower Bridge in London to learn more about the iconic structure spanning the Thames.
Alan, my tour guide from my recent day trip from London to the Cotswolds, Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford, kindly organized the tour after learning that I had never been there.
Alan’s friend Andy, the assistant exhibition manager, met us at the entrance to Tower Bridge and took us up the elevator to the top. Once there, he explained that the structure was not just one bridge, but three. There was a suspension bridge on the sides, a cantilevered section at the top, and a bascule bridge that opened up to let ships through.
As we made our way across the cantilevered section, we had great views of the Thames from the South Bank to the Tower of London. Beneath us were all kinds of ships, including Thames cruise boats and a large Greenpeace vessel.
Continuing on our tour of Tower Bridge, Andy told us some facts and figures. First we learned that the bridge receives over 500,000 visitors a year and hosts 150 events per anum. Impressive.
He then explained to us that there were 3 million rivets used in the construction, all of which were put in by hand. The rivets we saw were painted brown, and apparently the entire bridge was the same color until one of the Queen’s jubilees, during which it was painted silver.
At the end of the cantilevered section we descended a staircase and crossed the bascule bridge below. We were on our way to a part of Tower Bridge that most visitors don’t get to see. Andy led the way to a glass-fronted room on the north side of the bridge where Rob, the bridge electrician, gave us a behind-the-scenes private tour of Tower Bridge’s underbelly.
First he took us down a flight of stairs to a room with more machinery than I’ve ever seen. To the non-civil engineer it looked like a bunch of noisy, colorful equipment. But as Rob explained what each piece did, the stunning feat of Victorian engineering came alive in quite an impressive manner.
After we toured the room, Rob took us even deeper under Tower Bridge. Eventually we came to an enormous cavern of a space called the bascule chamber. It was there that the back end of one of the bascules tiled in when the bridge opened to let ships through. Rob explained the process by which it happened, and also pointed out funny things like the fact that the space has to be cleaned out once a week due to random rubbish falling in when the bridge opens (don’t litter on bascule bridges, kids!).
After the tour of the underbelly of Tower Bridge, we went back up to the control room. There was a ship scheduled to come through in a few minutes’ time, and we were going to get a firsthand view of how the opening process worked.
First Rob took us through the steps to clear the bridge of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles. Once the surface was clear, he started the process of opening the bridge. The bascules came off the poles on which they rested, the four nose bolts that held the two halves together retracted, and Tower Bridge slowly opened.
We watched the ship pass through, then the process reversed until traffic resumed as normal. It was amazing to see it all up close, and to learn how many steps were involved in something that happens over 1,000 times each year. By act of parliament, the bridge has to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and Rob and his colleagues are on hand at all times to make sure it happens.
After the behind-the-scenes tour, we continued back to the main public areas. We saw the old steam engines and learned more about Victorian engineering. We also watched a video of Australian motocross star Robbie Madison jumping the bridge on a motorcycle in 2009.
That was followed by a walk along the South Bank to watch Tower Bridge open again. But this time it wasn’t for a ship. It was a two-minute opening to mark Remembrance Day in the UK. It was a great tribute.
After the private tour of Tower Bridge in London, I was inspired to explore more of the world’s most famous bridges. Lucky for me, this week I travel to New York City, home of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then on to San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge resides. While I won’t get backstage visits, I might conquer my fear of heights and finally walk all the way across the Golden Gate. It’s a start.