Weird, wacky fun to celebrate 125-year-old London icon

Then and now: London's Tower Bridge today (left) and under construction in 1893 (above), the year before its opening. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Then and now: London's Tower Bridge today (above) and under construction in 1893, the year before its opening. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Then and now: London's Tower Bridge today (left) and under construction in 1893 (above), the year before its opening. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Then and now: London's Tower Bridge today and under construction in 1893 (above), the year before its opening. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • London's iconic Tower Bridge celebrates its 125th anniversary today by showing off the weird and wacky alternative designs that were nearly built instead.

The globally recognised landmark, which opens and closes for large boats plying the River Thames, has become one of the symbols of the British capital.

However, it could have been very different.

The fairy-tale, castle-style masterpiece was one of 50 designs which vied to solve the conundrum of erecting a much-needed new bridge that would still allow large ships into what was the world's busiest port.

"There were all sorts of weird and wonderful, really creative ideas," said Tower Bridge head Chris Earlie.

"There were spiral roadways - like you would see in carparks - either side of the River Thames and then a high-level bridge," the bridgemaster said.

Engineer John Wolfe Barry and architect Horace Jones' winning design was a bridge that flips open in the middle, with huge chambers in the feet of two towers to accommodate the counterweights swinging down as the bridge halves swing up.

River traffic takes precedence over the road and some cheeky captains make their masts a bit taller just to get the bridge to open.

For the anniversary weekend, some of the alternative designs are being recreated to be displayed on the bridge for pedestrians to study. Actors in Victorian costumes will wander about, portraying the workers, engineers and bridge users of the time.

The bridge took eight years to build and was opened on June 30, 1894 by the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

It cost about £1.6 million, or just £200 million (S$343.5 million) in today's money.

The critics were sniffy, feeling its Victorian Gothic style was pastiche and unambitious. However, it very quickly became a much-admired London landmark.

In its first year, the steam-powered bridge was opened more than 6,000 times. Now run on oil and electricity, it opens around 850 times a year, mainly for tourist vessels, which must give 24 hours' notice.

River traffic takes precedence over the road and some cheeky captains make their masts a bit taller just to get the bridge to open.

Some 65m tall and 244m long, Tower Bridge is the last bridge downstream in London, and is crossed by more than 40,000 pedestrians and 21,000 vehicles per day.

It is often mistakenly called London Bridge - its upstream neighbour that is now a mundane 1970s concrete construction - but takes the error as a compliment, quipped Mr Earlie.

Some 864,652 people visited the inside of the attraction last year. The ticket money goes to the City of London's charitable arm, raising more than £6 million per year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 30, 2019, with the headline 'Weird, wacky fun to celebrate 125-year-old London icon'. Print Edition | Subscribe