The oldest swinger in town

Days out: the Palmer family is uplifted by the hi-tech wizardry of Tower Bridge.
The combination of elegant architecture and gritty engineering underlies the appeal of the best of bridges. Especially so at Tower Bridge, that fairytale-like construction in the east end of London that still flips up in two to let ships pass through. First opened in the 1890s, the bridge took eight years to build and was a revolutionary feat of hydraulic engineering.

As river traffic in one of the busiest ports in the world decreased, so tourism grew, and in 1982 the interior of the bridge was opened to the public. In 1993 it became an "experience". And a very good one, too - with animatronics (very lifelike talking waxworks whose eyelids even blink), interactive computers and hands-on displays that will engage even the most non-scientific children (and adults).

Yet this is far more than a science-as-history day out. There's a large element of theatre here dealing with a sub-plot of trade and life in Victorian London. As a device to entertain, and explain the development of the bridge, the character of Harry Stonor, a simple bridge-builder, is deployed. He pops up all over the show - as a chatty waxwork and in videos that re- enact how the bridge was devised.

Visitors first meet Harry in the north tower, as a talkative waxwork arguing with the Mayor of London over the need for a bridge in the congested docks area. The matter is then discussed in a video showing whiskery Victorian gents who assess potential bridge designs in the boardroom. You then go to the high walkways of the bridge itself, with terrific views over the Thames and computers (not all of them in the best of health) giving details of the landmarks.

Harry appears again in a mocked-up chamber under the levers of the bridge, explaining the engineering theories. Visitors then pass through the old Victorian engine rooms (no longer in use) and have a chance to try out some hands-on hydraulic displays before being ushered into a Victorian mini theatre - Harry is in the audience - showing the grand opening of the bridge on 30 June 1894.

The visitors

Sally Palmer, a social worker, took her children Christopher, nine, Katherine, eight, and George, nearly seven

Christopher: The bridge's walkways and the views were great. And I really liked all the talking waxwork models: they were all very realistic so that you really learnt about the history of the bridge. I also liked the big cogwheel in the engine room - you could get a good idea of how the bridge used to work, although I don't think the hydraulics were explained that well. I think that they should have had a talking waxwork figure in the engine room as well, which would help you to understand the mechanics. But it was all really interesting and I reckon it would be a good place for a school trip, especially if you were doing a project on bridges.

Katherine: I enjoyed the models of the bridge builders and I'd like to have seen more of the Harry person - he really helped to explain things. But the theatre at the end was my favourite bit, especially the way the trees moved about. The walkways and the views were very good, too, although some of the computers there didn't work properly and I think they should be mended. Perhaps they should also have a quiz sheet for children so that you make sure you don't miss anything out.

George: I really liked the fake people that talked. And the theatre was fun. But the engine rooms were a bit boring, although I really enjoyed playing with the gadgets at the end - the pump was very hard to push. I tried lifting some of the tools on the walls and they were really heavy - the people who used them must have been very strong. I think I learnt a lot, and it was a brilliant day out.

Sally: It was a very good day. On a practical level there were lots of loos and numerous helpful guides. I hadn't realised quite how important Tower Bridge had been. I don't know how much they've hyped it all up as a tourist attraction, but I can now see what an engineering triumph the bridge was. I think a great deal of the technical explanations went over the children's heads, but they'll remember quite a bit. All in all there was a good mix of hands-on, display and animation so the children didn't have time to get bored - and we were there for well over two hours.

The deal

Tower Bridge, London SE1 (0171-378 1928) is a few minutes' walk from Tower Hill underground station (District and Circle lines).

Admission: adults pounds 5.60, children (five-15) and concessions pounds 3.90, family ticket (two adults, two children) pounds 14.50.

Facilities: there are plenty of toilets. Lifts to the main exhibition areas and to the walkways, although for a full tour you need to climb up and down stairs - so in this respect access for those in buggies or wheelchairs is limited. There is no cafe but discounts are offered at Captain Tony's pizza parlour in Tower Bridge Piazza. The items in the souvenir shop are refreshingly non-kitsch. There is also a grassy picnic area overlooking the Thames.

Other attractions: the Tower of London and HMS Belfast are within easy walking distance of Tower Bridge.

Bridge lift line: for details on when the bridge will lift up during the following seven days call 0171-378 7700.

Comments