Tower Bridge in London

The Tower Bridge Walkways – Part of (not so) Hidden London

London’s Tower Bridge is an internationally recognized icon of the city. Its structure – part drawbridge, part suspension bridge – was considered absurd and even tawdry by some early critics when the bridge was created in the 19th century. Yet today it’s been judged one of Britain’s best buildings, loved by locals and visitors alike.

Seeing the drawbridge section of the bridge rise is a rare treat – especially if you happen to be in a boat on the Thames when it happens (not so thrilling if you are needing to cross the river in a hurry) – yet it’s raised at least 1,000 times a year. And, surprisingly – although the tall-masted sailboats, a large river cruise boats and red-sailed Thames Barges have to request an opening 24 hours in advance – it’s free.

At least 40,000 people cross Tower Bridge every day – on foot, in vehicles and on bicycles. But, unless they’ve been burying their noses in guidebooks or tourist oriented websites, not many of them know about the exciting tourist attraction hiding in plain sight, high above their heads.

The two high level walkways were designed to tie the two towers together against the opposing stresses of the suspension sections. Like most people, I always thought that was the beginning and end of it – a structural device and little more. But, in fact, these horizontal “bars” were also always intended as open-air (though caged) walkways, offering remarkable views of the Tower of London and the City of London from 138 feet above the river.

Because the walkways quickly became a haunt of petty criminals, street walkers and pickpockets – real Oliver Twist territory – they were closed to the public in 1910. They remained closed until 1982 when a fee paying public was allowed to climb up for the view.  Few people did though.

A new role for the High Level Walkways

In 2014, a new attraction, a clear glass flooring, was added to the walkways. And, if you haven’t yet visited, the dramatic new view of London, will surprise and delight you. The walkways are totally safe but there’s no mistaking the frisson you’ll probably feel walking across them.

Opening day at Tower Bridge Glass Walkway
At the press opening, I joined the guests to cross the glass walkway.

At  138 feet above the Thames, the views from the High Level Walkways at Tower Bridge may not be as lofty as other London viewpoints – The Shard or the London Eye for example. But with nothing between you and the river save a thick sheet of glass, the new walkways are hard to beat for sheer excitement.

Totally Safe…If a Little Scary

The glass floors for each walkway are 36 feet long and 5 feet 10 inches wide. They are made up of six glass panels, each weighing almost 1,200 pounds. They’re supported by a carbon steel framework.

Under the frame, the original steel lattice structure of the walkways has been preserved – mostly for its visual reassurance, I imagine. Those original crisscrossed beams give nervous visitors a little extra psychological help when they step onto the glass floor. The glass is also patterned with dots to give it vertigo-reducing substance.

Among those of us who tried out the west walkway before its

Standing on the glass floor of the Tower Bridge Walkway
Walking on the glass walkway can give you wobbly knees. Those are my feet, just nervously stepping out onto the glass, with the traffic flowing beneath me.

official opening in late 2014, there was a certain amount of trepidation before the first journalist stepped onto the glass.  Of course, in no time at all, we were scrambling across it for a better view of the traffic and pedestrians whizzing along – and the birds flying – beneath our feet.

But, be warned, if you really are prone to vertigo, you might not like walking on the glass. Not to worry – you can cross the high walkway, which is heated and – these days – completely enclosed, without actually stepping on the glass.

Timed for a Bridge Lift

But, if you did, you’d be missing the best part – as we were soon to discover. Tower Bridge doesn’t open very often so if you happen to be on the glass floor when it does, you are in for an unforgettable sight. We watched the slow majestic lift of the roadway to let a tall-masted sailing ship through, looking down on a view that no one had ever seen before in Tower Bridge’s 120 year history. The gleaming white under structure of the bridge roadway (the bascules to show off a little technical terminology) was one of several surprises about witnessing the bridge lift.  Another, after the bridge lowered and the roadway was restored, was the ballet of traffic that commenced beneath it. First  across were the cyclists, what seemed like hundreds of them. Then pedestrians flooded the walkways and finally the cars and vans.

If you are careful, you can time your visit to see the bridge lift.  A schedule of Tower Bridge lift times is published online.  If you can’t make it for a bridge lift, just download the free Raise Tower Bridge app for smart devices. The app takes visitors through an augmented reality window in the glass, offering a 360-degree, panoramic video of the bridge being raised.  You’ll be able to walk around and find different angles to look through. If you don’t have a smart device, assisted iPads are available on the walkways.

Opening the Tower Bridge
The bridge opens. Click on the video link at the bottom of this article to see the full impact, with tall ships, ferries and riverboats passing below.

And here’s an interesting aside. If you are traveling up or down the Thames in a very tall ship, you can book a bridge lift for your boat for free. Bridge lifts for any ship with masts or superstructure more than 30 feet tall can be booked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But before you pick up the telephone, you’d better check that you meet all the requirements for a Tower Bridge lift.

The Tower Bridge Exhibition

The £1 million glass walkways, funded  by  the Bridge House Estates and the City of London Corporation, are the first major changes to the Tower Bridge Exhibition since it opened in 1982. Also part of the exhibition are the original steam mechanisms that lifted the bridge when it was created, in the 1890s. The exhibition includes interactive touch screens that explain the modern operation of the bridge.

Tower Bridge, the creation of architect Sir Horace Jones and civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry (youngest son of Sir Charles Barry, chief architect of the Houses of Parliament) was opened to the public in 1894 by the Prince and Princess of Wales – the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Essentials:

  • Open: October through March 9:30am to 5pm, April through September 10am to 5:30pm
  • Exhibition Entrance: the West side of the North tower.
  • Prices: In 2017, Adults £9.80 (£8.70 online), Children 5-15 £4.20 (£3.80 online) Children under 5 free. Children under 15 must be accompanied by an adult. 
  • To Get There: Nearest London Underground stations are Tower Hill or London Bridge. Tower Gateway Station is the nearest mainline train station. And for a special treat, why not take a Thames riverboat. Boats stop at St Katherine Pier and Tower Pier on the north bank and at London Bridge City Pier on the south bank. All are within a short walk of Tower Bridge.
  • Book Tickets to the walkways and the exhibition.*
  • Watch a video of a Tower Bridge Lift

* FULL DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: If you use links on this page to book tickets or services, I will receive a small amount of money, at no extra cost to you, to help fund this website.

 

montage of cherry Bakewells

Pudding, Pie or Tart? So What is a Bakewell?

When I headed for the Derbyshire market town of Bakewell, I was sure I would taste the original Bakewell tart.  I was even sure I knew what it looked like. I was wrong on both counts.

What’s a Bakewell – or a storm in a pudding basin

You see, you can’t get a Bakewell “Tart” of the sort we uninitiated expect in Bakewell – unless you visit the supermarket to buy Mr. Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells, a brand almost as ubiquitous in Britain as Oreos are in the USA.

The mass-marketed cross between a cake and a tart, pictured above, consists of a spongy layer of frangipane baked in a tartlet case over a layer of raspberry jam, the whole lot smothered in thick white icing – sometimes striped with chocolate – and topped with a candied cherry. 

A nicer version, made by home cooks and bake shops all over the UK, skips the sugary icing and tops the cake-like almond frangipane with sliced almonds. 

Nope, that’s not a Bakewell in Bakewell either

In Bakewell, near Chatsworth House, where they claim to have invented this dessert, they call it a Bakewell Pudding. It has neither a cake-like sponge of frangipane nor a thick layer of white icing. And hold the candied cherries. too.

Will the real Bakewell please stand up

The Bakewell I was served at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop was a bit of an ugly ducking to begin with. The glass counter was full of  lopsided pastries looking pretty unappealing for such a famous treat.  

Partly baked Bakewell puddings.
Partly baked Bakewell puddings look less than appealing before final preparation.

“Is that a Bakewell tart?”, I asked hesitantly.

“It’s a Bakewell pudding,” the woman behind the counter snapped, “That’s what we have.”  

Chastened, I found a seat in the suntrap terrace behind the bakery and waited, somewhat dubiously, for my pudding to arrive.

What was finally served bore as little resemblance to the dry, cold and soggy looking pastries I’d seen in the shop as the iced, mass produced version bore to the real thing. Having been heated, the pastry had undergone a transformation from an ugly duckling to a lovely, tempting swan. The raspberry jam had somehow risen to the top. flooding the entire surface. And the egg and ground almond layer, that looked so claggy and unappealing had become a translucent part of the whole dessert, tender and virtually invisible. What came to the table was a clear, shimmering and wobbly pool of raspberry and almond flavored filling, floating on a delicate, crisp base of multi-layered puff pastry. Maybe it was the sunlight sparkling in the molten jam that added to its appeal. Delicious. So, then, this must be the real deal, right? Well… Continue reading

Opening of the Great Exhibition of the North Photo courtesy of the Newcastle Gateshead initiative.

Great Exhibition of the North – The UK’s Biggest Event in 2018

The Great Exhibition of the North is set to celebrate the powerhouse cities of the North of England this summer with 80 days of celebration, exhibits, performances and events centered around the NewcastleGateshead waterfront.

If you haven’t made it up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne yet, this is the summer to do it. From June 22 to September 9, the waterfront, and venues all over the city, will come alive with a festival of northern innovation, culture, art, design, music and creativity of all kinds. Continue reading

The ROM Skatepark, photo courtesy of English Heritage

Four Listed Historic Landmarks That Will Astonish You

Historic England protects England’s important historic places. Some that are considered “historic” may surprise you. 

Perhaps you imagine that being “listed” (the term used to indicated a landmark is recognized and protected) is reserved for historic homes, castles, forts, mysterious earthworks and prehistoric monuments. There certainly are plenty of those;. But among the almost 400,000 listed historic monuments, there are also factories, filling stations, playgrounds, even a London zebra crossing. These are some of the unusual buildings and eccentric places that have been listed and protected in the past few years:

The Shrewsbury Flax Mill Maltings

Currently hidden by scaffolding and restoration works, this landmark can rightfully claim to be one of the most important historic buildings of the modern world. The flax mill, one of eight buildings at the site on the northern edge of Shrewsbury, is the world’s first iron framed buildings. This  ungainly, utilitarian structure, erected in 1797, paved the way for the skyscrapers of the modern city. Continue reading

Feast for pickpockets within sight of Big Ben

Tricky scams that target tourists

Bring your caution with you on your European city holiday. Don’t be a target for the increasingly creative petty criminals who plague places popular with visitors.

This is a great time of year to visit Europe. Nice weather brings everyone out into the streets to sunshine and relax at sidewalk cafes. But warmer weather also brings out the conmen, pickpockets and scam artists who prey on tourists. From all over the continent they arrive in Europe’s biggest cities – London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona – for the rich pickings to be had from vacationers who  have left their everyday cares and their normal caution behind.

You can stay smart and avoid becoming a victim by wising up to a few of these latest and most common scams that target tourists.

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Dome and stacks of the British Library Round Reading Room. Photo by Alex Watson ccl

Remembering the Round Reading Room at the British Museum

The British Museum plans to reorganize its collections and displays over the next ten years. Visitors to Britain’s number one visitor attraction can expect a gradual evolution of the museum’s gallery spaces, providing “more compelling and coherent stories”, according to museum managers. Perhaps that means they’ll unite the monumental Egyptian statues – now on the ground floor – with the mummies and ancient artifacts that are now several floors and a maze of corridors and galleries away.

The Round Reading Room

I’m glad to hear that the overhaul will include some serious attention to the Round Reading Room and its role in the grand scheme of things. The 19th century, Grade I listed room, with its beautiful blue, cream and gold dome and its halo of 20 arched windows, holds a special place for me and many other writers. I spent the better part of one intense and memorable summer studying there.

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Luxury bathroom in Wales

25 Perfect Hotel Room Essentials

What makes the perfect hotel room?

As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms, from the bare bones basic to the breathtakingly expensive. And I’ve learned that the cost of a hotel room bears little relationship to how close it comes to perfection. In fact, one of my most comfortable nights was spent in a cheap chain hotel room at a motorway rest stop

Worrying that my standards might be unusually low, I conducted a very unscientific survey of my travel writing and blogging colleagues in the British Guild of Travel Writers. It turns out that, among experienced travelers, traditional luxuries fall pretty low on their lists of what makes the perfect hotel room.

Cost is no indicator of perfection. And, for purposes of this list, neither are views or destinations. Soft, powder sand beaches beside turquoise waters under reliably cloudless blue skies can make up for a certain amount of inconvenience or discomfort. 

And friendly, helpful staff are essential. Even the most seasoned traveler is more stressed by minor mishaps and inconveniences when away from home. Knowing you are in the hands of competent, knowledgeable, pleasant staff can make up for a lot of other shortcomings.

The top 25 requirements for hotel room perfection

In no particular order

1. Decent beds – It should go without saying that a comfortable bed, with clean sheets free of critters, is not negotiable. Sadly, some hotels do need reminding.

2. Reliable wifi – Hotels in remote areas where the only internet connection is via satellite have a get-out clause on this one. But if broadband or wifi is generally available in the area, in this day and age, it should be free.

3. An up to date directory of hotel services  – The most basic directions – how to reach reception, how to connect to the wifi, how to work the television and clock, should be on the first page.

4. Convenient power points or electrical outlets – This is such a big topic it deserves its own special section, so here goes:

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Tewkesbury Park Hotel and Golf Club

A Dog-Friendly Short Break in Tewkesbury

We dog lovers are really not that hard to please. For the ideal dog-friendly break, we only require a few things:

  • A comfortable, grown-up hotel where dogs and their traveling companions are not made to feel like pariahs, relegated to the smelly room next to the laundry.
  • Lots of outdoors to run around in; fields, forests, or sandy beaches will do – we’re not fussy.
  • A good choice of attractions, at least some of which welcome dogs as well as people

A few dog-friendly coffee shops or pubs don’t hurt either.

Last month Lulu the Westie and I, along with her Westie pal Darcy and his human chums, discovered Tewkesbury, a medieval market town at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon. Just two and a half hours northwest of London, the Gloucestershire town beneath the Malvern Hills sits on the Northern edge of the Cotswolds.  It has, we discovered, everything needed for a dog-friendly break and then some.  

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Jewelry from prehistoric times to yesterday in this hidden away gallery at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum – A Between the Holidays Treat

I’ve only just discovered the Jewellery Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I cannot wait to head back there to explore them at leisure. 

The galleries, rooms 91-93, showcase items from the museum’s permanent collection ranging from precious metals to plastic, raffia and rubber and spanning millennia – from prehistory right up to yesterday.

As soon as you enter the first, darkened room, a large, beautifully worked embossed gold collar, alone in its glass case,  casts a warm glow across the entrance to the gallery. Is it from ancient Egypt? A piece from Agammemnon’s treasury? No, this stunning Bronze Age object, made between 800 and 700 BC, is the Shannongrove Gorget, found in an Irish bog in Co. Limerick.

The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog.
The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog. © Ferne Arfin

If it’s bling you’re after, there’s plenty of that to see. But what really makes these objects so fascinating is the craftsmanship and creative imagination, as well as some of the poignant stories, behind them.

There’s a Fabergé letter opener given by the doomed Tsarina Alexandra to her former English governess and lifelong correspondent, Margaret Jackson, for Christmas. The clear slice of rock crystal, simply adorned with gold and enamel was given to the museum along with a note of Christmas wishes to Miss Jackson dated 1900. The Tsarina,  Queen Victoria’s granddaughter,  was later among the members of the Russian imperial court shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Another object, the steinkabinett – an 18th century box by  Johann Christian Neuber, the court goldsmith at Dresden – is a kind of pocket natural science museum with 77 stone samples, identified on a paper map kept inside it. The “pearls” are particularly clever. They aren’t pearls at all but flat pieces of rock crystal, the underside carved into domes and then silvered.

Fabergé letter opener in rock crystal, gold and enamels. © The Victoria and Albert Museum
18th century Steinkabinett by Johann Christian Neuber. © Ferne Arfin

 

 

These objects and hundreds more are part of the museum’s permanent collection and you can drop by any time to see them, for free – maybe something to do before moving on after dark to see the London Christmas Lights in Piccadilly and Regent Street.

Before you go, you might want to book tickets to the V&A’s current special exhibitions: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics in the new Sainsbury Gallery until February 25 and Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. on until April 8.

Christmas at Waddesdon 2017

Winter Light at Waddesdon – Christmas 2017

Christmas festivities at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, are always extravagant fun.

This year, they’ll have a hard time topping the wonderful installations and events of 2016, when the grounds of the former Rothschild estate positively glowed with the Field of Light. But, in 2017, they’ve had a good go and they’ve given the video design students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama a real chance to shine. 

In creating Waddesdon Imaginarium, seven Guildhall students experimented with 3D scanning and video projection technology to cover the entire front of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s faux French chateau with an animated parade of dancing clocks, 18th century portraits, fluttering butterflies and moths, flowers and porcelain animals – all scanned from objects in the Waddesdon Collection. 

The performance, accompanied by an original score and synchronized lighting effects, used 14 large format projectors to cover the1,700 square metre facade with a dazzling 12-minute display. The score was created by 111 Guildhall students in the BMus (Hons) programs in Electronic Music and Jazz.

My jittery videos should give you a taste of the spectacle.

Inside Waddesdon, artists and designers were invited to design decorations around the theme of an Enchanted Menagerie, drawing on the artworks and objects in the rooms for inspiration.

Enchanted Menagerie in the Smoking room
Imaginary animals decorate the Christmas tree in the Smoking Room.
Noah's Ark at Waddesdon Manor
Noah’s Ark on the Billiards Table

Meanwhile, The Electric Menagerie – neon animals, created by American multi-media artist Lauren Booth, lit up unexpected corners of the estate.

Electric Menagerie by Lauren Booth. The Aviary. Photo by Mike Fear © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

And because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an opportunity to stock up on holiday gifts, this year’s Waddesdon Christmas Fair is arrayed along the front promenade leading to the house. The fair features food, drink, produce and crafts from local artisan producers and national independent traders. Lots of it is very tempting.  We left with shopping bags full.

Waddesdon Christmas Essentials

  • Christmas festivities at Waddesdon are on from now to January 2 (except December 24-26), 11am to 6pm 
  • Waddesdon Imaginarium, the sound and light show, begins at dusk every evening during the holiday opening hours.
  • The Christmas Market, with 80 decorated wooden chalets is open until December 10.
  • Visit the Waddesdon Manor website to find out more. 

Travel writer, web editor and author