The beauty of London is that which ever direction you walk, you will quickly find yourself in either one of its countless parks and squares full of trees, flowers and monuments; or on the banks of the mighty River Thames. The Thames, which meanders through central London, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and the emblematic Tower Bridge is it’s most well known means to cross the waterway.
Last week, with sunshine and a picture perfect English spring day dawning, I decided to go for an extended walk, exploring the bridge and the area around it. I have often heard people ask: can you actually walk over the Tower Bridge? The answer is– yes, you can. And what a wonderful experience it is. I took the underground, alighting at Tower Hill. Then, following the signs to the Tower of London, I turned left at the underpass before climbing up a few steps to street level and thus reaching the north end of the Tower Bridge.
Opened in 1894, the bridge is 244m long, dominated by the two bascules, operating like a see-saw, which house the machinery and equipment needed to raise the bridge floor. High above the lower level are two high level walkways which allowed pedestrians to cross the bridge whilst it is open. The high level walk ways were closed in 1910 due to lack of usage by pedestrians who preferred to wait and watch the passing ships instead of climbing up to the walkways with everything they carried. In 1982, the walk ways were re-opened and now can be accessed through the Tower Bridge exhibition center.
The views from the lower level of the bridge are fantastic. My favorite is the sight of old and new structures in juxtaposition; the glittering “gherkin tower” roaring up into the sky behind the ancient Tower of London. Admission to the exhibition center is GBP8 and the opening times are from 10am to 5.30pm. You’ll also find ample documentation of the history of the bridge as well as entry to the engine room with its massive compressors which were initially operated with steam.
To be honest, London is an expensive place to spend a holiday and although the view from the high level walkways are superior, I limited myself to a walk across on the lower level, spending my spare GBP8 on a Starbucks Panini and coffee. At street level, traffic was roaring by and I couldn’t help myself, I was watching out for a #78 bus! Why? Because I had just learned about the 1952 incident where the #78 bus, driven by Albert Gunton, had to leap the gap between the bascules when the bridge started to part with his bus still on it. Another anecdote dates back to 1912 when Frank McClean, in his Short bi-plane, experienced an emergency and had to fly between the bascules and the high level walkways to avoid an accident. Don’t you just love stories like that?
Nowadays the bridge doesn’t open much any more because river traffic has changed dramatically, so it will be a lucky coincidence if you can watch the opening. The Tower Bridge website announces the opening schedules.
Once over the bridge, I crossed the road and walked back, because my next destination was the St. Katherine Docks, conveniently located nearby. It is another great place full of history to be explored on foot. Just climb down the same steps you used to get onto the bridge — follow the sign to St Katherine’s Docks — and go through the underpass to reach an unexpected marina with a market and food shops. It also affords a rare view of Tower Bridge from a very different perspective.
There is plenty of evidence that a marina existed on the site of St. Katherine’s Dock since 1125. With the regular growth of river traffic over the centuries, legislation was passed in 1825 which dedicated an enormous amount of money to the expansion and renovation of the area. At the time, the area consisted of 1250 slum houses, grouped around alleys with such fancy names as Dark Entry, Cat’s Hole or Pillory Lane. All was cleaned up and St Katherine’s Dock became the most important marina for the import of luxury goods which were stored in 2 and 3 story warehouses. In recent years, the warehouses have been converted into very expensive river-side condos and offices.
The image of luxury still prevails in the form of many shops and boutiques which cater to life’s small necessities as well as excellent restaurants and a thriving Friday market. You can admire the yachts and leisure craft berthed at the marina or get a taste of history by visiting the Golden Hinde, a replica of the warship in which Sir Francis Drake navigated the globe from 1577 to 1580.
If you still feel strength in your feet, nothing prevents you from making your way back to the Tower of London and rounding out your walking day with a viewing of the Beefeaters, the Black Ravens, and the glittering Crown Jewels.
Written by and photos by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte for EuropeUpClose.com