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The Gentle Author Opens Tower Bridge

September 5, 2011
by the gentle author

What better way could there possibly be to commence the third year of daily stories than to open Tower Bridge? Yet I could barely believe it was going to happen as I walked down through the City and up onto the bridge approach where tourists milled on the pavement.

None knew the secret I was carrying as, emboldened by privileged information, I waved to the men inside the control cabin and they ushered me swiftly inside. At once, I shook hands with Bridgemaster Eric Sutherns – tall and dignified in a peaked cap, he looked for all the world like the captain of a ship, and here, suspended above the water with the controls before us, it was as if were upon the bridge of a liner. The outlook was breathtaking, but there was no time to contemplate it as the Bridgemaster introduced me to Bridgedriver David Duffy who, in the few brief minutes remaining, was eager to induct me into my task.

In moments, the controls of the most famous bridge in the world were to be given into my hands. A single black knob, resembling a gearstick, drives the raising and the lifting of the bascules – as the halves of the bridge are known. Eyeballing me with his intense blue pupils, David explained quickly that I needed raise the bascules to between seventy-six and seventy-eight degrees, but once the bridge reached fifty degrees, I must press the button that changed the light on the bridge from red to green, indicating to the vessel that it was safe to proceed. Already, David had initiated the sequence of events that culminated in raising the bridge. Sirens were sounding, traffic lights were flashing, gates were descending upon the roadway as cars and vans drew to a halt, and wardens in fluorescent jackets were shepherding pedestrians back behind the barriers.

Keen to give a semblance that I was capable to undertake the task, I nodded confidently as the vital instructions passed through one ear and out the other. Somehow I had put myself at the centre of a train of events that were entirely alien to me, but as the challenge drew close, it was essential that I maintain the sham of competence. Yet the staff at Tower Bridge were one step ahead of me. “Check that the vessel is in sight,” instructed Bridgedriver David Duffy, preoccupied with the multiple television monitors showing activity on the bridge as the last tourists scurried out of sight. Sublimated entirely by the expertise of the master, I turned and peered down the river, expecting to see an unremarkable craft.

In an instant, the intensity of the event was amplified a thousand fold as I saw a tall ship, with three masts and lines of sailors standing upon the rigging, coming straight towards me. No longer was I living in my familiar world but inhabiting a vision. Inescapably, it was time to open the bridge. I turned back to David Duffy and Eric Sutherns, only to discover they were excited too, because even to these experienced bridgemen, this was a rare spectacle. In unison, they directed their gaze to the control lever and David placed my hand upon it, with a nod that only meant one thing. I looked up to the computer monitor, which showed that the linking bolts, that hold the bridge rigid when it is closed, had retracted, and then I pulled the lever slowly towards me. There are two speeds –  creep and full speed. With the audacity of a beginner, I chose full speed, and two and a half thousand tons of steel moved into life.

I held on, as if it were to life itself, alternating my gaze between the rising bridge outside the cabin, the monitor where the counter clocked up the angle of incidence, and the tall ship bearing down upon me. At fifty degrees, I hit the button that gave the Captain clearance to enter the bridge and he reciprocated by a blast upon the hooter. Then the bridge was at seventy-seven degrees and it was time to halt and hold on. Now the ship was upon us, so close that I could no longer see its entirety but only the section passing by. Unexpectedly, from behind me came the sound of cheering and out of the corner of my eye I could glimpse flags waving, because this was ARC Gloria, the training ship of the Colombian Navy, and the bridge was full with excited Colombians come to show their national pride.

Even in the face of a morbid fantasy that I might release the bascules to crash down, sinking the vessel, causing massive casualties and triggering an international incident, I could not resist my awe at the wonder of the spectacle passing before my eyes. So tall that it only cleared the walkway above by a few metres – eighty-one cadets dressed in the red, yellow and blue of the Colombian flag were standing in formation upon the rigging of ARC Gloria, singing their anthem and waving for joy at this glorious moment of passing through Tower Bridge.

Once the ship passed, it was time to switch the light on the bridge back to red and close it again. But then, as soon as I had recovered my breath, it was already time to open the bridge for the return of Arc Gloria to complete its ceremonial passage before leaving to cross the Alantic Ocean. Consequently, I was able to open the bridge a second time and enjoy it without being in the grip of the terror that overwhelmed my debut. The bridge went up, the ship went through and then it was all over. David closed the blinds in the cabin and presented me with an intricate certificate as evidence of my achievement.

I followed him down a staircase within the bridge structure and into the engine room where oil hydraulic pumps have replaced the steam engines which ran here until 1976. We stepped through a door leading to a gantry in a vast dark cavern of diabolic industrial gloom, extending below water level, constructed within the base of the bridge. Here I understood that each half of the bridge is a seesaw with the counterbalance hidden from view inside the towers. “It’s a unique job,” admitted David, with proud reticence, as we paused here beside this mammoth iron construction weighted with four hundred tons of lead.

Visiting one of the four control cabins which is still fitted out with its original equipment, David explained that four were necessary in the days of the London fogs, before telephone and radio, when often the bridge drivers could often not even see across to the other side of the bridge. Today, ships book their openings a day in advance and Tower Bridge opens between eight hundred and a thousand times a year, but when it originally came into service in 1894, the bridge opened  six thousand times a year, responding to signals from ships entering and leaving the busy Pool of London at any time of the day or night.

There is a superlatively idiosyncratic logic to this marvel of nineteenth century engineering, which apart from switching from steam power to oil hydraulics still runs exactly as it was built. David told me that the bearings which the bridge turns upon are original. David told me that the architect Sir Horace Jones intended Tower Bridge to look industrial, faced in red brick, but he died before completion and they altered his design to face it in stone, making it more Gothic to harmonise with the Tower of London. David told me that Hitler instructed the bomber pilots to avoid Tower Bridge, so that it could be retained as a landmark. David told me that elevators were installed so pedestrians could cross by the walkways above when the bridge was open, but they were closed in 1910 because of the prostitutes that solicited there. David told that the Bridgemasters used to live in the houses built over the suspension bridges and as we spoke a wedding was taking place in the Bridgemaster’s dining room.

We shook hands upon the bridge. “I bet you didn’t realise it was so easy to move two and a half thousand tons of steel?” David queried with a kindly smile, as we made our farewells before we went our separate ways through the crowds. It had been an emotional visit and I was staggered by this mighty masterpiece, but I returned home secure in the knowledge that now I have moved two and a half thousand tons of steel with the hand that writes these words, it should be a simple matter to craft a new story for you every day.

David Duffy, Bridgedriver, at the control panel of Tower Bridge.

The vast cavity down inside a pier of the bridge.

“It’s a unique job”

This control cabin retains its original equipment.

In the nineteenth century, unable to leave their posts, Bridgedrivers required the use of portable toilets.

In this diagram you can see the toothed quadrants used to move the bascules. A miscalculation in the size of these quadrants means that they stick out of the walls on the inner side of the towers and metal boxes were constructed upon the exterior to cover where the ends protrude.

ARC Gloria of the Colombian Navy, with eighty-one cadets on the rigging singing their anthem.

With grateful thanks to Eric Sutherns, Bridgemaster, and all the staff of Tower Bridge.

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan Lendroth permalink
    September 5, 2011

    What fun! All doors in London must be open to you now — thanks for letting the rest of us peek inside.


  2. TokyoDon permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Another wonderful post. Thank you so much!

  3. Marina permalink
    September 5, 2011

    What a wonderful visit! Thanks for taking us along!

  4. Jill the lollipop lady permalink
    September 5, 2011

    What a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime moment, I am truly envious.

  5. September 5, 2011

    How wonderful!

  6. September 5, 2011

    What a wonderful way to mark the start of a new year of stories! Thanks for sharing, and good luck!

  7. September 5, 2011

    Wow! Your description of opening the bridge is fantastic – I could feel the weight of responsibility you shouldered! And to have such a magnificent vessel pass through was just the crowning moment. There is nothing like seeing a mighty sailing ship with its crew standing out on the yard arms – brings a lump to the throat.
    As an adopted Londoner currently living in Beijing your blog frequently makes me homesick , and this piece made me proud of our wonderful city, the skill and artistry of the Victorians who gave us things like Tower Bridge and St Pancras Station.
    Thank you so much for all the pleasure I get from reading your blog.

  8. Sarah permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Great way to start the new year!

  9. Aneela Rose permalink
    September 5, 2011

    The pictures are fabulous! A truly memorable experience, thank you for sharing this.

  10. Ros permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Wa – haay! Wonderful account – we the readers could share every moment.

  11. September 5, 2011

    I have goosebumps, and tears in my eyes from reading your account of the great privilege you were allowed to experience. Wonderful writing and photos. Thank you for what you share and congratulations on this big honor and for two years of stories completed. We’ll be eagerly waiting to see which doors open for you in the year to come.

  12. Ree permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Equal parts scary and exciting?…Loved the pics and the account…This is such a fun site…!!!

  13. MzTallulah permalink
    September 5, 2011

    What a grand return, Gentle Author! Looking forward to many more of your stories to come. Thank you!

  14. September 5, 2011

    Well done, you deserve all good things gentle Author. I have read yours posts since the start and hope you continue to write this fascinating journal of life. Here’s to year 3!

  15. Paula Peters Marra permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Oh Gentle Author,

    Bravo, bravo!

  16. Michael Braff permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Thank you for bringing a slice of London life to my inbox everyday! My sister and brother-in-law have both had the privilege and honor of opening Tower Bridge. You might check out her charitable trust (—she designed the Tower Bridge Passport for children (and grownup children—like me!) and the Tower Bridge poster (among many projects she has undertaken for them). Thanks again for bringing this American a little closer to the city where I would love to live (at least part time!).

  17. September 5, 2011

    What an experience! Your wonderful words made it seem as if I was there with you. Chills and tears and thrills! Thank you and here’s to another wonderful 3 years – or more!

  18. Elena Henson permalink
    September 6, 2011

    Another great article, and lovely photos – like a Quentin Blake picture come to life! Thanks.
    Happy New Year

  19. Anne Forster permalink
    September 6, 2011

    Here’s to another year of fascination gentle author. Glad you enjoyed your little jaunt to the seaside too.

  20. jeannette permalink
    September 7, 2011

    columbians in the rigging. singing their national anthem. next up, a tour of the bridgemaster’s houses??? and, did you snag one of those sexy white overalls with the bridge embroidered in blue? the bridgedriver is foxy!

  21. Vicky permalink
    September 7, 2011

    A powerfully poignant moment for me as a 10 year old in the fifties and living in Spitalfields, was standing with my mother, brothers and sister on the banks of the Thames waiting for Tower Bridge to open. And it did, and it was magnificent, and I shall never forget it. So, to welcome us back to your world with this piece was, for me, just perfect, magic. Thank you GA.

  22. Yanik Stauffer permalink
    September 12, 2011

    Wonderful Pictures!!!!!!

  23. Philip Venning permalink
    September 12, 2011

    My two daughters, at the time both under 10, won the chance to open and close Tower Bridge in a charity raffle (under close supervision). I think I enjoyed it even more than they did and still bore people with the story.


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