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Tower Bridge, London

The two massive, gothic-looking towers of Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames on the east end of London, are one of the most iconic visual landmarks of this city full of iconic landmarks. The towers are so large and impressive that, if they were situated in the middle of the city and not associated with any bridge, would still be a major tourist attraction just for being large and interesting towers.

Built in the early 1890s, the Tower Bridge structure is complex, being a composite of several types of construction. The central span is a double-bascule drawbridge supported between the two massive central towers. The lower part of the towers house the counterweights needed to raise the spans, and the upper part of the towers serves as the anchor point for girders that form the adjacent suspension-supported spans that flank the drawbridge. The two towers are connected to each other at their tops by enclosed walkways.

This entire complex structure is elaborately decorated. The two large central towers and two small flanking towers are faced with two different types of stone for decorative effect. The walls of the towers are constructed of rough-faced granite, while the carved arches and crenulations are made of a smooth-faced limestone. Both stones are a tan-gray color that was obviously chosen to blend in with the walls of the Tower, more than 800 years older. The stonework has been used to create a riot of turrets, crenulations, spires, gargoyles, and every other possible castle-like feature on the tops of the towers. In fact, the White Tower at the base of the bridge, which was an actual working castle in its day, pales in comparison to the bridge in terms of our modern conception of what a castle should look like.

Like the Golden Gate, Tower Bridge is a tourist attraction that draws thousands of visitors at any given time. The area can be accessed from the Tower Hill Underground Station, and a visit to the bridge should be combined with a visit to the Tower. You can easily spend all day at the Tower, famous for being the location of the British Crown Jewels. Readers with an interest already know snippets of the 900-year history of the Tower, and numerous books provide the full details. A few highlights include the White Tower constructed by William the Conqueror, the two princes murdered within its walls, the beheading of Anne Boleyn, and the imprisonment of Rudolph Hess during World War II.

Just as important as walking across the bridge is visiting the publicly accessible areas within the towers and the arches. A small tourist pavilion is located inside the base of the northern tower, off the western sidewalk, which would be the first location approached when walking onto the bridge from the Tower of London. A visitor’s desk there sells tickets for access to the towers and the Engine Rooms. Note that the video screen behind the ticket desk displays the times of upcoming openings of the drawbridge, which are known well in advance. You have come all this way to see the bridge, so you might as well as see it in action.

From the ticket desk, a lift carries you to the top of the tower, releasing you into a large, dimly lit space crisscrossed with riveted steel girders. A small theater set-up shows a short presentation depicting how the bridge design was selected, with actors portraying the architects trying to convince another actor portraying Queen Victoria of the superiority of their proposed design.

Following the film, the tour leads out onto the walkway, suspended about 100 feet above the bridge deck. The walkway is enclosed in glass, protecting you from the wind and cold. The first walkway you enter is that on the eastern, downstream side of the bridge. As Tower Bridge is located at the eastern end of the historic and touristic section of London, no prominent landmarks are visible from the first walkway. The view is impressive, though, showing the London Docks, Canary Wharf, and the more recent industrial and commercial developments of London. The walkway is also lined with displays showing photographs and discussing features of many of the prominent bridges of the world.

At the end of the walkway is the entrance to the south tower, which has a similar-sized, dimly lit space. In this tower, a film describing the construction of the bridge is shown. From this room, there is an entrance to the western walkway, which faces all of the famous historic sights and landmarks of London. On the right is the Tower, with the new office towers of the City behind. Prominent among these is the famous Gherkin Building, named for its odd shape and blue-green color. Further west along the north shore, Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument and St. Paul’s Cathedral are prominent. Numerous bridges can be seen on the Thames in the upstream direction, including London Bridge, Southwark Bridge, the Millennium Footbridge, and Blackfriars Railway Bridge. The prominent landmark on the Southwark bank, to the left, is the gigantic new glass building called “The Shard,” constructed in 2013, and now the tallest building in Europe. Once viewing is complete, your tour continues down the staircase of the south tower, leading back out to the bridge sidewalk.

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