Right now, the harshest lesson for Tim and I to learn is that there is never enough time. There will always be more to discover. So much we haven’t seen. Around every corner, a new world waiting. Posters in the tube announcing new shows opening the day after we leave. Family events we’ll miss. We have to let it go. We have to learn how to say goodbye. Goodbye to London. Goodbye to family.
We are filling our last days in London with adventures and one of our most unique experiences was Tim’s raising of the Tower Bridge.
Tim was given one of the best gifts ever. He was given the opportunity to be the man behind the mechanism, the man to move 2,500 tons of steel to allow a boat to pass unimpeded down the Thames.
The Bridge, built in 1886, originally worked with a marvelous Victorian hydraulic system to lift the bascules (from the French word for “see-saw”, the moveable section of the bridge road) so that ships could pass through to the Port of London. Ships today still have a right of way along the river and, with 24 hours notice, the Bridge must be raised to allow passage through. On a rainy London morning in early May, Tim was the man who made that happen.
Tim met with the Chief Bridge Technician in the control tower of the Tower Bridge. The mechanization is electronic nowadays. But although the system has been modernized, the actual workings of the bridge remain the same. Huge amounts of steel are see-sawed up and down in a very short amount of time. A computer screen shows the inner workings. Buttons must be pushed in sequence. A level must be carefully pulled.
40,000 people cross Tower Bridge every day. This means that the first thing that must happen, when raising the bridge, is to stop the traffic. A push of a button, a communication with the outside patrol, and cars, pedestrians and cyclists came to a halt. Needless to say, this gave Tim an incredible sense of power.
The barriers in place, the traffic stopped, Tim pulls the lever to raise the bascules to 40°.
It is as though the city holds its breath. The bridge rises and the computer screen shows Tim the changing angle of the bascules. 40° achieved, the awaiting boat glides through.
When the boat clears the bridge the bascules are lowered, everything is locked back in place and the cyclists race to get back on the road before the barriers are removed. Tim’s moment of glory is over, but he is presented with a certificate to mark the occasion and we are taken on a tour of the mechanisms far below the surface of the water. A secret world.
“The Thames is liquid history”, said John Burns in 1929. A few days later, we decided to go out and explore more of the history of the Thames and took a commuter boat down the river to Greenwich, another on our list of World Heritage Sites.
Greenwich is renowned for its maritime history. The newly restored Cutty Sark has just been “launched” in the dry dock beside the main pier. Built in 1869, the ship was one of the last tea clippers built and one of the fastest ships of her time.
It now sits atop a glass museum, held suspended so that you can walk beneath it. On a grey day, the ship seems full of the history of the sea.
The Maritime Museum is also in Greenwich, as is the oldest Royal Park in London. Greenwich Park was created in 1433 and is home to the Royal Observatory, which is where Greenwich Mean Time is centered.
John Flamsteed was the first Royal Astronomer, by decree of King Charles 2, and his rooms and observation room are still in tact. The Octagon Room, where the regularity of the Earth’s rotation was tested, was designed by Inigo Jones.
The hill that the Observatory sits on affords a spectacular view of London, the O2 arena, and the new the Olympic Equestrian Events arena.
The dark skies cleared (a bit — it has been the coldest and darkest May here since 1698!), as we ruminated on the foundation of time in place. By measuring longitude, we measure the earth’s rotation and use this to fix our concept of time. I stood on the meridian line, one foot officially in the west, one foot officially in the east. But our sense of time is elastic. Ten months ago, the time of our journey seemed endless. Now all we can say is, where has the time gone?