Last Thursday I stood 42 metres above the River Thames on the walkways of London’s Tower Bridge and was struck by the ingenuity that has gone into constructing our built environment.
Tower Bridge required two massive piers to be sunk into the river bed and the erection of over 11,000 tons of steel to create the framework for the towers and walkways. It was the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge ever completed. These bascules – the word comes from the French for ‘see-saw’ – were operated by hydraulics, using steam to power the enormous engines. The building project itself took 8 years, 5 major contractors and the labour of 432 construction workers.
I was there for the opening of a photographic exhibition of 60 black and white images of London’s past sourced from the London Metropolitan Archives. These offer visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the rich seam of history that surrounds Tower Bridge, the Pool of London and the surrounding areas.
But it was more than these images that made me think about man’s ingenuity in creating the buildings that make up the City, it was my conversation with John Wolfe Barry. John is the great grandson of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the engineer who oversaw the construction of Tower Bridge. What’s more he’s the great, great grandson of Sir Charles Barry the architect best known for his role in rebuilding the Palace of Westminster – the Houses of Parliament.
As we stood chatting atop one of these iconic buildings, looking west towards the other, we discussed the diversity of structures that make up the skyline; notable among them the Tower of London, the Gherkin, St Paul’s, the BT Tower and now the Shard, creeping ever upwards beneath the spindly arm of the crane building it. Interestingly, despite now being dwarfed, it was St Paul’s that still stood out as most iconic against the sunset.
Image credit: © City of London – London Metropolitan Archives