Along with Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, the Tower Bridge tops Great Britain’s list of architectural icons that make up London’s distinctive skyline. While not the first bridge to span the Thames, Tower Bridge is the most recognizable and is often mistakenly referred to as “London Bridge.” While Tower Bridge is one of the world’s most famous bridges, few know its rich history. In fact, information about London Bridge is never complete without visiting its history.
Old London Bridge
The Old London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame dates from 1176, when Peter, a priest and chaplain of St. Mary’s of Colechurch, began construction of the foundation. Replacing a timber bridge (one of several built in late Roman and early medieval times), Peter’s structure was the first great stone arch bridge built in Britain. It was to consist of 19 pointed arches, each with a span of approximately 24 feet (7 metres), built on piers 20 feet (6 metres) wide; a 20th opening was designed to be spanned by a wooden drawbridge. The stone foundations of the piers were built inside cofferdams made by driving timber piles into the riverbed; these in turn were surrounded by starlings (loose stone filling enclosed by piles). As a result of obstructions encountered during pile driving, the span of the constructed arches actually varied from 15 to 34 feet (5 to 10 metres). In addition, the width of the protective starlings was so great that the total waterway was reduced to a quarter of its original width, and the tide roared through the narrow archways like a millrace. “Shooting the bridge” in a small boat became one of the thrills of Londoners.
In 1205, Peter of Colechurch died, and three other London citizens completed the bridge by 1209. Almost immediately the bridge became not only an important commercial crossing but also a choice business and residential site. Shops lined both sides of the roadway between the fortified gates at either end; houses were built above the shops, with 138 premises being recorded in 1358. Walkways and additional rooms were extended between the buildings, transforming the roadway into a tunnel-like passage through which merchants and other travelers bustled. In the 1580s, during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, water mills were installed that added to the uproar.
The bridge became the site of calamities. Three years after its completion a huge fire destroyed all the buildings and killed as many as 3,000 people. But the houses (a source of income for the bridge) were quickly rebuilt, lining the 926-foot (282-metre) length of the bridge and reducing the carriageway to only 12 feet (4 metres). In 1282, five arches collapsed under the pressure of winter ice. These, too, were rebuilt, and the bridge, though often in a state of disrepair, survived as London’s sole crossing of the Thames until 1750. In that year Westminster Bridge opened, despite opposition from City merchants.
Shortly thereafter the City decided to repair Peter of Colechurch’s bridge and the project was given to Charles Labelye, designer of the Westminster Bridge. By 1762 all the houses were removed, the carriageway was widened to 46 feet (14 metres), and the two central arches were replaced by one great arch at mid-span. The removal of the central pier led to serious erosion of the riverbed, and gravel was constantly poured to protect the remaining piers. Finally the maintenance became too much of a burden, and the City asked the renowned engineer John Rennie to design a wholly new structure several yards upstream.
New London Bridge
For the new structure, Rennie proposed five semielliptical stone arches, with the central span reaching 150 feet (46 metres), the next two 140 feet (43 metres), and the two shore spans 130 feet (40 metres). Rennie died in 1821 before work began, and the job was left to his two sons. George Rennie had actually made the design in 1820, but construction was conducted under John Rennie, Jr. in 1824. In 1831, King William IV and Queen Adelaide arrived by water to celebrate the opening of the new bridge. Demolition of the ancient structure began that year, and by 1832 it disappeared, having served 622 years.
Rennie’s bridge survived less than 140 years. Between 1968 and 1971 its facing stone was dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. state of Arizona, where it was re-erected on a five-span core of reinforced concrete to serve as a tourist attraction at the resort town of Lake Havasu City. The New London Bridge now crosses Lake Havasu behind Parker Dam, 155 miles (250 km) south of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
Modern London Bridge
The current London Bridge, built between 1968 and 1972, replaced Rennie’s stone arches with beams of prestressed concrete reaching 340 feet (104 metres) in the central span. Construction was carried out using the cantilever method, with segments being built outward from two piers, each segment tied to the previous one by high-strength steel tendons. In the centre, the two cantilevers did not meet but stopped short, leaving a space into which the builders placed a concrete beam to complete the span. The design represents a major post-World War II innovation in bridge engineering, but the bridge itself is not of great historical significance.
Another interesting information about the London Bridge is that it is an amazing venue for parties. Most bridges in the world are not ideal locations for throwing parties, but guests at a Tower Bridge event do not have to worry about dodging traffic. Within the bridge’s towers and the walkways above are several event spaces with spectacular views that make Tower Bridge one of London’s most popular venues.
Tower Bridge Exhibition
A visit to Tower Bridge Exhibition is the most exciting way to explore and experience the most famous Bridge in the world. Within the Bridge’s iconic structure and magnificent Victorian Engine rooms there is plenty to see and do!
After watching a new animated video about why Tower Bridge was built, guests can walk into the high level Walkways, 42 metres above the River Thames. This offers visitors a chance to admire stunning panoramic view of London, spying such popular landmarks as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument to the west and St Katharine’s Dock leading to Canary Wharf to the east.
The East Walkway houses the exhibition ‘Great Bridges of the World’ – this photographic exhibition features over 20 Bridges, each of which represents a breathtaking feat of engineering. In the south tower, a short video shows the construction of the Bridge, before guests proceed to the West Walkway where they can view brand NEW exhibition, ‘This is London’. Here, visitors can admire copies of over 60 iconic illustrations and excerpts from painter and illustrator, Miroslav Sasek’s classic children’s book, ‘This is London’.
Continue on to the original lifting machinery in the Victorian Engine Rooms, complete with sounds and smells that transport you back in time to the Bridge’s origins. You will also experience a virtual Bridge lift, providing you with a unique view of the Bascules being raised. And currently on display is ‘Art at the Bridge, #4’, our brand NEW exhibition in partnership with Southwark Arts Forum.
A final visit to the Gift Shop before leaving allows the chance to take home a memento of your day.
Hotels in London Near Tower Bridge
The Tower Bridge area offers a choice of fine hotels.
Hilton London Tower Bridge Hotel
The glass exterior of this Hilton hotel faces Tower Bridge. Guestrooms have wireless Internet access, plasma TVs, mini-bars and windows that open. The hotel also has a business center and fitness center. Its on-site eatery, the Larder Restaurant, serves a breakfast buffet, lunch and dinner. Coffee and cocktails are available at the Ruba Bar.
Hotel Novotel London Tower Bridge
The Novotel is located on the Thames near Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The contemporary guestrooms have sleeper sofas, flat-screen TVs, in-room movies and Internet access. The hotel also features a sauna and fitness center, and provides a currency exchange and a staff that speaks eight languages. The Elements Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Enjoy sandwiches and cocktails at the Pepys Bar, named after 16th-century writer, Samuel Pepys. Families traveling with children receive a special gift, late check-out, adjoining rooms and free rates for kids.
The Tower is a luxury hotel on the Thames near Tower Bridge. The 800 guestrooms have Egyptian linens, flat-screen TVs and mini-bars. Free wireless Internet access is available throughout the hotel, which also provides 24-hour room service and concierge service to its guests. Other amenities and services include a fitness center and limousine service. The Tower provides special venues along the river for weddings and receptions, and it has two on-site restaurants and a cocktail bar.
Apex City of London
The Apex City of London is a stylish, upscale hotel next to Tower Bridge. Amenities in the 179 guestrooms include free wireless Internet access, flat-screen TVs, refrigerator and coffee and tea service. The Apex provides guests with 24-hour room service, laundry service, a DVD library and mail delivery. The hotel also has a gym and contemporary conference and meeting rooms with views of the Thames. The hotel’s restaurant, Addendum, serves modern cuisine.