Thursday, 26 November 2009

London's very own North Star

"You should've just told us to aim for the BT Tower!" bemoaned friends who had just spent fifty minutes getting lost walking a fifteen minute route to find my office. They had a point; this would probably have been more helpful than my perfect detailed road names and wiggly route through the streets of Fitzrovia. The iconic BT Tower dominates the skyline of central London, as the closest equivalent to Manhattan's Empire State Building, outside of The City proper. Like the North Star, if you can find the BT Tower, you should be able to orientate yourself in central London.
Still referred to by many Londoners as the Post Office Tower, the 620 foot tall building has been owned by several major British companies and organisations over the years, but has always been a crucial British communications hub. Doughnut-shaped floors of switchboards and electrical engineering, are served by lifts hurtling through the middle of them like express elevator jam. Currently owned by telecommunications company British Telecom, the BT Tower is responsible for maintaining endless telephone and internet links in today's London.
An old switchboard within the tower, dead connections on a deserted floor.
Once upon a time at the very top of the tower was a restaurant famed for its rotation, giving diners a 360 degree view out over London; although one wonders if it didn't also make them feel slightly motion-sick and put them off their food. Following an IRA terror attack in the 1970s the restaurant closed almost 30 years ago, but with the 2012 Olympics looming the tower has announced it is to reopen the twirling eatery. To further mark the advent of the Games, which are set to ruin both the British economy and the average Londoner's life with the advent of biblical hoardes of sport-seeking tourists, the light blocks around the top of the tower have been replaced. In place of changing colours the tower now sports a headband of LED displays which project multi-coloured messages out into the night. Launched with the legend "1000 days" scrolling through the sky, currently this display is counting down the remaining days until London hosts the Olympics.

Since the first restaurant closed, the general public have been banned from the tower. Indeed the location of the tower was a government secret until the early 1990s - okay not exactly the most unobtrusive secret, a whopping great tower, but it was not plotted on maps or officially linked to its street address (60, Cleveland Street, for anyone keen to visit). I was able to gain access due to a work event I was organising earlier this year, and was lucky enough to have a brief tour; I was only allowed in however after passing through security checks a major international, over-cautious airport would be proud of.
The original restaurant is now used for private events (costing two thousand pounds merely to open), but it still rotates to order. The view from the top is undeniably amazing, yet the areas I found most fascinating in this building were the now disused switching rooms. Cardboard boxes, abandoned biros and half-complete log-sheets still rest on desks at which no one has sat for five or six years. Once-blinking light panels gather dust and hundreds of metres of valuable floor space in the heart of London remain empty.

Maybe this is a reflection of the ways in which modern society chooses to communicate in this day and age. Maybe it shows how far we have come since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Maybe it shows how struggling infrastructure companies are having to throw money at external events and organisations to keep going, rather than internalise their investments. Whatever is held inside its tall body the BT Tower has become an iconic image of the city, as well as a point of orientation for any lost local or tourist. So next time you find yourself wandering central London, cast your eyes upwards and look for that familiar shape rising above rooftops. It will tell you where you need to head...and how many days there are until the London Olympic Games.


  1. Wow - this takes me back. The first legend to run round and round at the top was "Peter Lind" - the building firm from ?Cannock in Staffordshire - who had put the tower up in about 1960. My father was in a hospital bed nearby and it was something for us all to watch at visiting time!

  2. Ah, the same ideas always come back again! Except I'll bet this time they cost a lot more money.


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