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Tower bridge (part six)
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The interests of shipping meant that the bridge originally had to stay open for two hours at high tide, which was why the upper walkways were provided for pedestrians to cross when the bridge was open, but this rule was soon relaxed and the walkways were not used as much as the authorities had expected. Most people preferred to wait at ground level and watch the bridge opening, rather than walk up or wait for a lift to take them up, with another walk or wait to get down, аll of which would probably have taken longer than the average wait for the bridge to reopen. The walkways were no doubt a good place for a stroll, but in 1910 they were closed through lack of use. It has been suggested the closure was due to the number of suicides, but this cannot have been true, as the walkways were enclosed by cast-iron latticework, making it impossible to jump from there, though there were a number of suicides from the roadway.


Tower bridge (part six)

A Swedish sailing ship passing through Tower Bridge.



Originally the bridge opened up to twenty times a day, and it opened 6,160 times in its first full year. These days, although the Upper Pool is no longer a working dock area, it still opens about a thousand times a year. The maximum lift is 87 degrees, though it rises above 35 degrees only when necessary, in order to save time. Originally there was no need for a ship to warn of its arrival; two black balls hanging from the mast were an indication of its intention to pass through the bridge. There was a system of semaphore by day and lights at night to inform shipping of the position of the bascules. Even today, shipping takes precedence over road traffic, and any vessel can ask for it to be opened so long as twenty-four hours’ notice is given. This can cause unexpected delays, and no one is exempt, as President Clinton discovered in 1996 when, after a meal at the Pont de la Tour with Tony Blair, his motorcade was held up while the bridge opened, much to the consternation of his security staff.

In 1912 Frank McLean, piloting a small biplane, became the first man to fly through Tower Bridge, then flying under all the other bridges as far as Westminster. On the return journey he tried to repeat the feat, but at Tower Bridge turbulence caused the plane to crash into the Thames. The feat has often been repeated, most famously in 1968, by an RAF fighter pilot flying at up to 300 mph. A year later a light aircraft flew through the bridge on Battle of Britain Sunday as a tribute to those pilots who lost their lives during the war.

The bridge was not seriously damaged during the Second World War, though windows and tiles were broken and some of the stone cladding was dislodged or loosened by the air attacks. The bridge had its own anti-aircraft battery, and the control cabins were plated in steel and sandbagged as a precaution. On one occasion the bridge had a narrow escape when a doodlebug went through the middle of it, though the tug took a direct hit and the two staff on board were killed. In 1943 W. F. C. Holden, the architect of the National Provincial Bank, put forward a proposal that, instead of repairing any war damage to the bridge, it should be encased in glass and re-used as offices after the war!


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