St Paul’s cathedral as seen from the viewing platform of The Shard – London, January 2013
The Shard, formerly London Bridge Tower before Londoners affectionately renamed it, is a 95-storey skyscraper in London. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, its construction began in March 2009 and it was topped out on 30 March 2012. At 309.6 metres high, the Shard is the tallest building in the EU and when fully complete will contain 24 floors of office space, a 200-room Shangri-La hotel, four floors of restaurants, 10 luxury apartments (reputedly priced at around £50 million each – gulp!), and a double-volume public viewing platform (the UK’s highest) on the top floors, offering panoramic views of the entire London. Although most of the building is still in the final stages of completion, the public viewing platform opens to the public on 1 February and I was lucky enough to be invited along to the press preview last week, together with Andrew and Chris.
Once you have negotiated the giant construction site that London Bridge has become and located the dedicated entrance to the View from the Shard, you enter the sleek lobby which has surprisingly little space for queueing – the plan is to sell timed tickets so as to avoid the legendary queues often seen at the Empire State Building in NYC. While waiting for their bags to be screened, visitors are drawn into the history of London via a series of whimsical backlit panels where 140 famous Londoners have been superimposed on vintage views of the city: Alfred Hitchcock fleeing the pigeons in Trafalgar Square; Banksy spraying a new masterpiece on a Baker Street wall; the Queen and her corgi riding on a scooter; and on the Thames by the Houses of Parliament, olympian Steve Redgrave waterskiing. As you approach the lifts, you follow the blue line of a virtual River Thames at your feet, annotated with riddles so that you can guess which area of London is being described.
Two sets of high-speed lifts in slightly offset shafts whisk visitors to the 33rd floor and from there to the 68th floor viewing platforms. With the lifts travelling at a speedy 6 metres per second, this trip is over in 30 seconds – just enough time for your ears to pop. Although it was not yet ready when we visited, a soaring anthem by the London Symphony Orchestra, composed especially for the occasion, will eventually provide the soundtrack for the journey. To me, the speed of the journey creates a slight disconnect in the brain. With the Eiffel Tower, there is a very real-time sense of ascending laboriously to a great height, so that by the time you get to the top your brain knows it is going to be Very High Up. These lifts, however, do nothing of the sort – in the same journey time, the lift in my office building makes to about the 7th floor! So when you finally do step out at the viewing platform, it takes a while for your brain to process what your eyes are telling you as they take in all of London at once, spread below you. Far below you!
On level 68 where you exit the lifts, the windows are obscured with opaque screens to discourage lingering, but climb the stairs to the 72nd floor and you find yourself in a soaring triple-volume viewing gallery. Forget the cramped confines of Vertigo atop Tower 42 – this lovely airy space with its dark wooden floors and subdued classical music is an entirely different experience. The weather on the day we visited was grey with low cloud and fairly limited visibility, but help is at hand in the form of 12 Tell:Scopes. These nifty interactive digital telescopes with large touchscreens can be used in real-time like traditional telescopes, but also offer the option of pre-recorded alternative views – for example if you visit by day and wonder what the same view would look like by night. As famous buildings and landmarks appear in your Tell:Scope sight, over 200 of them can be clicked on screen to provide you with a brief history and background of the building in any one of 10 languages. And for those who like to be in touch with the elements, you can also climb another floor up to the partially open-air viewing platform where you still see the view through two layers of glass, but stand under the open skies, with only the spire of the building and the planes heading for London City Airport above you. Back inside you will also find a small gift shop, and surely the loos with the best urban view in the world.
And what about the famous view? In a word, mesmerising – even on a relatively dull and cloudy day like when we went. Seeing a city that you know so well from so much higher than ever before is a magical thing. Cars shrink to the size of bugs and people to ants. Suddenly spatial relationships that are impossible to grasp from the ground become obvious. With the noise, hustle and bustle of the city stripped away, it becomes possible to get a whole new perspective on the place where you live. On a clear day, you can evidently see for 40 miles but on the pea-soupy winter’s day when we visited, you struggled to make out the Wembley Stadium arch. However, as night fell and the lights of the city winked on one by one, the clouds became irrelevant and a whole new tapestry unfurled at your feet, possibly even more magical than the daytime scene.
The verdict: A lot of thought has obviously gone into putting together the attraction, rather than just bunging in a lift to the top of a tall building. A lot of effort has been made to make this about London itself, not just about a big skyscraper and a lot of context is provided for visitors. I loved the airy, spacious feel of the viewing gallery and the fact that you can walk right up to the floor-to-ceiling windows and peer both down and out. Of course, it will be a lot fuller when the attraction opens to the public but although capacity is 400 people they are not going to admit more than about 250 at a any given time, so it should never be the scrum that, say, the Eiffel Tower can be. It’s also good that although you have a timed entry ticket, once inside you can linger for a long as you like. I found it reminded me most of the viewing platform of the Sears Tower in Chicago, another high vantage point more suited to contemplation and dreaminess rather than scrumming for position. I found the open viewing platform a lot less open than I had envisaged – although open to the sky, you are still viewing London from behind not one but two layers of very thick glass, which makes photography somewhat, erm, interesting. The biggest sticking point for me (and many others) is the price – £24.95 per adult and £18.95 per child under 18 – which quickly mounts up if you are a family of four. But then if you compare it to other high places in London, it starts looking less exorbitant: £18 per adult only buys you 30 minutes on the London Eye; to get to the top of The Gherkin you either have to work in the building or join a private member’s club for £250 plus £750 annual fees; the cheapest drink at Vertigo atop Tower 42 is £14, and then you are usually confined to the view from your table rather than walking around; and to get to Duck and Waffle in the Heron Tower, you have to buy a meal rather than just enjoying the view. So although it is definitely not cheap, it is not actually bad value compared to other high-rise options – and it is pretty spectacular. You can see yet more of my pictures taken at The View from The Shard in my Flickr album, or check out the photos taken by fellow-bloggers Andrew, Chris and Fiona.
My top tip: Go in the hour before sunset so that you can see the city change from daywear to nightwear before your eyes.
Essential info: The View from the Shard opens to the public on 1 February 2013 and is open from 09h00 till 22h00 every day. Tickets cost £24,95 for adults and £18.95 for children and must be booked in advance from the website or by phone.
The View From the Shard
London Bridge Station
Tel. 44(0)844 499 7111
DISCLOSURE: I visited the View from The Shard as part of a series of pre-opening press previews. No remuneration other than the visit itself was received and all opinions are my own.
Saturday Snapshots is a series of non-food photographs published every Saturday on CookSister. Previously featured photographs can be viewed on the Saturday Snapshots archive page. Many photos featured in Saturday Snapshots are available to buy as high-quality greeting cards or prints in my RedBubble store, or even as high-quality A3-size calendars. If you want a custom calendar with your own selection of photos, starting with any month (not only January), please e-mail me and we can discuss your requirements. Full colour calendars for 2013 include FLOWERS, RAW, LONDON, LIFE’S A BEACH and BELLA ITALIA – they make great gifts, for friends, family or for yourself.