Bridgehead revisited

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Chris Fautley gives an update on one of London's most popular sites of historical importance

Tower Bridge is held together with glue and works with magnets: one theory put forward by a young visitor at the Tower Bridge Experience. Fortunately there's an education centre where things can be put right. Cue one large and extremely heavy bridge bolt.

About 30,000 schoolchildren visit the Tower Bridge Experience each year, which can, if teachers wish, run talks and object-handling sessions. The most popular are on bridge-building, the Victorians, materials and structures.

The tour has two main parts. The first is inside the bridge, taking in both the North and South towers, and the high-level walkway linking them. The show starts in the North tower with an audio-visual on significant world events from the present day back to when the bridge opened in 1894. It's stirring stuff, but probably over the heads of younger children.

Then, it's onwards and upwards to the next stage. Here we meet Harry Stoner, a Cockney engineer who helped build the bridge. Harry is part of an animatronic show and acts as a guide for the rest of the tour, explaining the building and operation of the bridge in a series of attention-grabbing presentations.

The highlight is the walk in the sky between the towers with its spectacular views. Then it's back to earth via the South tower for more audio-visual and animatronic shows, including one in the chamber where the bridge hinges. A scale model it may be, but there's a hair-raising surprise at the end as a bascule - one of the two see-saw road sections - grinds menacingly down from the roof.

The experience concludes in underground engine rooms, home of the original Victorian steam machinery. Its heaving pistons and spinning flywheels are mightily impressive, though they do not perform any function since the bridge is now electrically operated. More animatronics and some good interactive gadgets where children can raise a model of the bridge and learn about pumps and hydraulics complete the tour.

Carping at the Tower of London seems to be in fashion. Complaints about people-movers in the Jewel House and the removal of the Royal Armouries accompany mumblings that it's over-priced and over-crowded. The fact is child admission is Pounds 5.60; and it's also a fact that pre-booked school parties get in for a bargain Pounds 1 a head. The Tower sees 2.5 million visitors a year, including 65,000 schoolchildren. But, says education officer Irene Davies, schools can help themselves by visiting early in the day and in winter months when there are fewer tourists and shorter queues.

Otherwise, expect to wait up to an hour to view the Crown Jewels - hence the moving walkway. It still gives adequate time to take everything in and there are plenty of other exhibits in the Jewel House over which you can pore as long as you wish.

Pre-planning is essential. Angle visits to a theme - Normans, Tudors, the Civil War, castles - suggests Irene Davies, and book a free familiarisation visit.

The education service organises more than 30 different workshops and learning experiences for children of all ages - Meet the Raven Master and Tudor Music are two of the more unusual. Tudors, object-handling sessions and castles are the most popular. Nearly all are free of charge.

In the Metalwork for Young Children session which I looked in on, led by artist-in-residence Andrea Sinclair, a group of junior children were creating copper face masks - theirs to keep as part of a visit which explored the production of armour. "This way they get an added understanding of the whole concept of armour," she says.

The Tower still has a good selection of armour, even though the Royal Armouries have moved to Leeds. Horse armour, Henry VIII's armour and even a dwarf's armour will not disappoint. "Certainly there is less," says Irene Davies, "but it is better displayed."

The Tower and the bridge may be old favourites, but the outright winner at Tower Hill is a rank outsider. The church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower and its crypt museum can only be described as a microcosm of the Museum of London. There is something from practically every period of the capital's history.

Groups of wandering children inside a place of worship seem an unlikely mix. But, says verger Terry Barber, they are most welcome, though advance booking is essential. "All Hallows is a living church," he explains.

By prior arrangement a room is available for use as a classroom, and there is a guide booklet which is well geared to the primary curriculum. For older children the audio tour is particularly good. It takes about 40 minutes. Terry Barber can help match your national curriculum requirements and will act as a guide. "I enjoy dealing with children," he says.

Wartime devastation revealed many of the treasures on view today. A 7th-century Saxon arch must be one of the greatest surviving pieces of architecture from that period; the crypt museum houses a large selection of artefacts from Roman London, as well as parts of a pavement from a 2nd-century house - you can even walk across it; and the church plate is breathtaking.

There are strong maritime connections. Stained glass with a nautical theme, a crucifix made of wood from the Cutty Sark, an ivory figure reputedly from a Spanish Armada vessel, and the crow's nest of the vessel Quest from Sir Ernest Shackleton's last Antarctic voyage. There are 17 brasses with facilities for children to do their own rubbings. Add all this to a church whose story spans 13 centuries and they combine to make All Hallows unmissable.

The Tower Bridge Experience, Tower Bridge, London SEl 2UP.Tel: 0171 403 3761 Tower Bridge Pounds 2.50 per child, pre-booked, or Pounds 3 with session in the education centre. Free teachers' pre-visit material and worksheets. Full resource pack: Pounds 9.75 u Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB. Tel: 0171 488 5658 (education office) Pounds 1 per child when groups book first, tel: 0171 488 5694. Free worksheets and pre-visit material u All Hallows-by-the-Tower, Byward Street, London EC3R 5BJ. Tel: 0171 481 2928. Museum Pounds 2.50 per head including audio guide. Book first

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