While the London Bridge is the bridge that is associated with the famous nursery rhyme, it’s the Tower Bridge that captures the attention of residents and tourists alike, for a variety of reasons. Some even mistake the Tower Bridge for the London Bridge, but the two are distinct in every way that matters.
While the Tower Bridge’s main purpose is to enable people and traffic to get from one side of the river to the other, the experience associated with doing so has long been a priority in a way it isn’t on any other bridge in the city. The Tower Bridge celebrates the history of the structure and also provides the opportunity to see London from 42 meters (137 feet) above the River Thames. It’s an experience that has allowed the attraction to have a truly monumentous impact on the city.
The History of Tower Bridge
Built between 1886 and 1894, the Tower Bridge was designed to ease road traffic while preserving access to a main stretch of the River Thames. A traditional fixed bridge at street level could not be built because it would cut off access for many tall ships. In 1876, a competition for bridge designs was held, and eventually a bascule bridge was chosen. Construction started in 1886 and took eight years to complete.
The two bridge towers built on piers are arguably the most distinct aspect of the Bridge. The high-level walkways between the towers were only opened to the public in 1982 with the creation of the Tower Bridge Exhibition. This exhibition takes visitors through the history of the project and the Victorian engine rooms that originally powered the bridge raising. In 1974, the original operating mechanism was for the most part replaced by an electro-hydraulic drive system.
The raising of the bridge isn’t something that’s performed as a novelty though. Under the Corporation of London Act 1885, the City of London Corporation is required to raise the bridge for registered vessels with a mast or superstructure of 30 feet or more. The service is provided free of charge, which sees it raised around 850 times each year.
This requirement showcases the utility of the Tower Bridge and harkens back to the original purposes of the structure, which is obviously still being served. However, the Tower Bridge Exhibition demonstrates what it can mean to create an experience that can be completely independent of such utility.
Experiencing London While Towering Over the River Thames
Crossing the River Thames on the Tower Bridge at street level doesn’t feel much different than it does via the many other bridges in the city. While the pedestrian view provides viewers with a nice look at nearby landmarks including the Tower of London and The Shard, the Exhibition is what really makes the experience a memorable one.
The Exhibition is broken up into several distinct sections, each of which allows viewers to experience a different piece of history of the Bridge as well as numerous unique experiences. Those experiences begin with a film and some props that show visitors footage from the early days of the project. It continues with information displayed on both sides of the walkways that span the towers. The walkways contain what is the highlight of the exhibition for many visitors.
The glass floors in these walkways are the highlight for many visitors, as they allow people to see everything that is happening on the bridge beneath them. Visitors are encouraged to take pictures of themselves or their group, and to even lay down on the glass to make it look as if they’re laying on top of traffic and above the River Thames.
This vantage point also gives viewers an even better look at sights like the Tower of London and The Shard, along with other icons like the Gherkin and 20 Fenchurch Street. From the walkways, viewers have an incredible look at the raising of the bridge, and finding out when it’s going to lift next just means looking at the upcoming bridge lift times.
Along the walkways, visitors can take a virtual reality experience that takes them back in time at Tower Bridge, and can also watch virtual demonstrations of the bridge raising and what construction looks like. There’s also info about the availability of the “Raise Tower Bridge” app that allows people to see a 360 degree video and raise the bascules.
After exiting the towers, visitors are led down to the engine rooms, which display the Victorian devices that raised and lowered the bridge in all their glory. The machinery that is on display here is large and impressive, but all of it is supplemented by various pieces of history that details the people and tools that allowed everything to operate.
The Tower Bridge Exhibition is only open during the day, but the entire structure is lit up in spectacular fashion at night, which provides a completely different experience for visitors. While not as distinct as the day | night contrast at some other monuments, the ability to enjoy the Tower Bridge in different ways at different times of the day adds another element to the overall experience.
These efforts have opened up a number of economic opportunities at the monument both residents and tourists are able to support.
Direct and Subsidiary Economic Opportunities at Tower Bridge
While it’s free to cross the Tower Bridge on the street level, the Tower Bridge Exhibition charges an admission price that varies based on someone’s age and status. There are numerous options in terms of family ticket purchases, which makes anyone with children get a bit of a price break. There are also bundle ticket options that include admission to The Monument, which memorializes the Great Fire of London and the city’s effort to rebuild.
Regardless of how they’re getting admitted, numerous products that are on display in the gift shop are designed to appeal to a wide variety of people. Whether it’s a magnet, notebook, puzzle or anything else, visitors are able to commemorate their visit to Tower Bridge in countless ways. The ability to remember the trip isn’t limited to the gift shop though, as a photo booth and a penny press both offer additional options.
Many of these options are designed to appeal to tourists, and while residents can and do partake in them, the Tower Bridge also has some powerful opportunities for residents, or anyone looking for a place to have private, corporate events or weddings. There are three venue areas, each of which offers a unique view and setting for a variety of events. The walkways and Engine Rooms are also available for private evening hire, while the North Tower Lounge is available for smaller daytime functions. Weddings can be held in the walkways and the North Tower Lounge.
In addition to the direct revenue the monument has been able to generate from options like these, the Tower Bridge has also opened up a variety of economic opportunities for various shops and businesses in the surrounding area, many of which rely on the foot traffic the monument attracts. These businesses range from street vendors to restaurants to breweries. There are also a number of newly constructed hotels in the direct vicinity.
The economic opportunities the Tower Bridge has directly and indirectly created are extremely powerful, but the impact it has made on the culture of the area and even the city itself runs much deeper.
Connecting with Communities
The iconic nature of the Tower Bridge has had a discernible impact on the culture of London itself. It’s an attraction that is called out on practically every map of the city, and it has been a major cause for development of the South Bank, which is an entertainment and commercial district of central London. It’s an impact that can be seen and felt across the city.
On a more intimate level, the Tower Bridge has begun an artist-in-residence program, which has seen artists use the opportunity to create artworks that are inspired by the Bridge. Stakeholders also work with local community groups to widen access and participation along with schools from across the city, country and even the world. Teachers and students have been invited to explore the history and engineering of the structure through hands-on workshops and tours.
These kinds of efforts to connect with individuals extends to residents and tourists, as there is a whole day dedicated to family friendly activities inside Tower Bridge every month. Efforts to connect with visitors through social media are apparent across the Tower Bridge Exhibition as well, as visitors are encouraged to share their experiences with the world.
As just one of the attractions associated with the London Pass, the Tower Bridge serves as an important icon for the city that helps attract visitors from all over the world. Residents have come to see it as part of the fabric of the city itself that has strongly influenced the identity. There are few lists or tours that don’t incorporate Tower Bridge in one way or another, and the impact of creating icons like this is impossible to measure or ignore.
All of these elements have come together to create a monument that is just as important for tourists as it is residents, which has contributed to a legacy that continues to gain influence.
An Icon for London
The bottom line utility of the Tower Bridge is the reason it was erected, and it’s important to remember that it’s as relevant in a practical sense today as it was when it opened. However, the fact that what’s been built here is about so much more than getting people from one side of the river to the other is extremely important.
Tower Bridge could easily have been just another bridge that spanned the River Thames, but the endeavor to create an experience has allowed it to become an icon for the city and even the country itself. This status has created a lasting economic and cultural impact that has helped define the history and future of the region.