The view from the top of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath is, to my mind, the finest in London; down below the hill full of kite-fliers and picnic-ers and dog-walkers lies the entire city. Viewers orientate themselves by a familiar office building or a skyscraper, pointing out iconic buildings they recognise. A couple of years ago the skyline changed forever, and the pointing fingers on Parliament Hill made out a new structure, which over the past months has crept slowly up towards the sky, closing in on, and finally dwarfing, the Gherkin, the BT Tower and the other multi-storied mega-buildings dotted across the blue-grey concrete landscape of London. The tallest building in Europe was now London's, and 'The Shard' took its place in architectural history, right on top of London Bridge.
Designed by Renzo Piano, the Shard was to be a multi-purpose skyscraper; 72 floors of home, hotel, office, events space and tourist destination. When it opened last year, it was also to become the workplace of an Accidental chum (and a real, proper Londoner at that), who now spends much of her week welcoming us average gawkers to the pointed glass tower, manning its super-sleek high-speed lifts and ensuring that no one gets lost and wanders where they shouldn't. Knowing my fondness for exploring the city, said chum kindly invited me over to The Shard one afternoon, and gave me my own personal tour.
Entering on the ground floor, visitors to the Shard have a long way to go before they reach the viewing platform, grandly titled 'The View'. Then its into the first of two lifts which whisk you up to the 68th floor. Or rather they do if they're playing ball. The temperamental lifts have become somewhat legendary for their technical hissy-fits, and their trapping of tourists for several hours between floors. Fortunately the day I visited I had no such issues, and soon found myself up on the building's indoor viewing platform. From up here you can see the whole of London, apparently for 40 miles on a clear day.
And you certainly can see. We passed a happy time playing 'Spot the park' and racing to locate particular buildings - yes, we are skyline nerds! (At least in my friend's defense it is her job.) We spotted new skyscrapers emerging, and office buildings with extravagant rooves which looked like they should have been something interesting but were probably just mundane headquarters full of modular desks and swivel chairs. There was the Tower of London - the city's original tower - down by the river, and the Thames itself winding through the city, beneath each and every bridge, all the way out past Greenwich. Trains weaving in and out of terminals, tiny trucks moving along roads, and boats zipping along the river.
And then you go up even higher to the 72nd storey, and the open-air viewing platform. And you see even further. And you torture your companions who suffer from slight vertigo by going right up to the plate-glass walls and looking down. Note: this is not the best attraction for those who suffer from a fear of heights...although the Accidental chum reported that she'd met plenty of nervy-looking people who were not enjoying The View at all, but who had been dragged up by over-enthusiastic partners. The most off-putting thing of being up here is that you suddenly realise you are at helicopter height, and you see these mechanical insects whirr past the windows in front of you.
(Forgive the annoying reflections on my photos - even the open air viewing platform is carefully glassed in so no overkeen tourists are lost over the edge.)
In the past month or so there doesn't seem to have been an album launch or a media party that hasn't been held in the Shard. The Shangri-La Hotel is due to open later this summer in the Shard's mid-section - what a place to stay that will be. Who knows how long the popularity of the Shard will last as the venue de jour, but it certainly makes for some interesting stories from the Accidental chum. 'You'll never guess who I had in my lift last week.' has become the new 'You'll never guess who I had in my cab the other day.', as everyone in the city takes in The View for themselves.