Balloon Repair Station

‘Ere John want a couple of tickets for The Shard?

It was just like that, a half whispered nod and wink from Mr ‘Fix-it’ Lubbock at the Icicle Dinner. Seemed that they needed volunteers to see if the arrangements for the paying visitors would work when The Shard opened to the masses in February. Well we nearly had his arm off and ordered six in the vague hope we might get four! A few days later Eddie the Ticket had duly done the handshake and the tickets were ours. Blinding.

So it was John, Jane, Barry and I trudged up the station on a chilly, cloudy 14th January. Coombe Hill was hidden under cloud and it looked like snow. The Sunday had been perfect, sunshine and views to the Maldives. Typical. By the time we got to Marylebone and walked round to Baker Street it was raining and clouds were dodging the buildings. Now, The Shard is on the South Bank of the Thames just next to London Bridge Station, in fact the entrance is off the old lane that runs through the station. In front of us was a well-heeled gentleman on his mobile, quite vocal, clearly it was his day off. The conversation was curt, he was a doctor. We discovered this when he loudly announced to the person on the their end of the phone that “Its my day off, I’m a doctor not a bloody mind-reader. Go away! (in slightly more formal Anglo Saxon).” We laughed, he smiled, put his phone out and strode away into the crowds to enjoy his day off, we hoped. A few minutes later we met up with Mr Lubbuck, Sue Kidd and our oppos David and Judith Usill, David, as usual, armed with the world’s biggest and most flat plate, wide screen top-techy camera. “I’ll never need to buy another,” he proclaimed.

Steel mesh and a couple of heavies guarded the unfinished entrance and, along with a gaggle of other guinea-pigs, we were politely ushered in. Security is tight but unobtrusive. There are bound to be delays in getting in but there is a fine mural that runs the length of the entrance depicting characters from our fair Isle including Boris, Henry VIII and the foul-mouthed chef whose name escapes me set amongst scenes and monuments of London. It is actually great fun and passed the time well. We, along with our bags, coats and Usill’s enormous camera were screened and passed as safe. Once through there is a photo-opportunity which results in a photo with London’s skyline in the background, collect later from the exit. David and Judith obliged!

Just to be clear (which it obviously wasn’t going to be) the viewing platforms, which is the touristy bit of The Shard are collectively called The View. The View is around 800ft up the 1016ft Shard and, curiously, occupies floors 68, 69 and 72. Up at this level the floor area is not that big, the taper sees to that. We reckon the missing floors are the connecting landings and service lift access but couldn’t get a tangible answer from the otherwise very nice and helpful guides who were also new to the experience. The last top floors proper are the viewing galleries and the only thing above them is service areas and the tapered steel work to the very top. As The Shard was still very much ‘under construction’ when we visited and destined to be a ‘multi-use 1,016 foot vertical city of high-quality offices, world-renowned restaurants, the 5-star Shangri-La hotel, exclusive residential apartments and the capital’s highest viewing gallery’ access to any other bits was not possible.

Once cleared through we were taken to the first lift which shot us halfway up at a cracking speed although there wasn’t really any impression of the acceleration and deceleration of the lift. The lifts have clever, very slightly, inclined mirrored walls that that give the illusion of a vast long curving corridors. Then its all change to a short haul whizzing lift for the final bit up to the viewing platforms. Rather than open straight out to a stunning view and causing anyone with even mild vertigo to drop to the floor (no danger today!) there is a walk round before it opens out to the platforms proper. The initial platform is enclosed but, make no mistake, you are immediately properly aware that you are in a glass walled room with 360º views, well, we would’ve been if it wasn’t obscured by clouds and driving snow covered the windows on two sides! The most impressive thing about the visit was the guides. Not in your face stopping you drawing smileys on the fogged up glass but there to ensure you get the best of the views and enlighten you with useful historical facts about the scenery (allegedly) below. There are plenty of them, we counted around a dozen or more on the platforms alone. We eagerly pressed noses against the glass to see what could be seen. Looking down we could just make out the roof of London Bridge Station and trains snaking in and out of the platforms and, moving round, an occasional glimpse of HMS Belfast when the rushing snow and cloud cleared for a moment. A helpful guide then kindly directed us to some Star Wars type viewers. These are clever things with pre-programmed moving views as if it were sunrise, day, night or in real time. You pointed it and zoomed in or out to see the view. John immediately swung ours towards the Lord Clyde in Borough! Time to go upstairs.

This is the thing, this is exactly what it is all about. You trot up a couple of flights of stairs and suddenly you are in the semi-open with the top of The Shard going on to pierce the sky above you. When I was a small person and my dad told me we were going to London to see the skyscrapers this is exactly what I had imagined and dreamt about the night before. For me there was definitely a bit of deja-vu going on. Its brilliant and would be spectacularly brilliant had we been able to see anything! Seriously it is breathtaking even in a snow storm. The snow and clouds were rushing by but there wasn’t any wind noise and not a trace of movement in the building so well is the design at breaking up windflow. A clever bloke that Piano-playing chappie that designed it. In the corners you could get right up close to the glass and look straight down. One of the guides recounted that a couple of visitors have actually got on their hands and knees and crawled across to the edge to take a look as their curiosity overcame their fear of heights! It was snowing at this level and I mean it was really snowing just to leave you in no doubt you were open to the elements. Barry took pictures of an invisible St Pauls and David took arty pics of the still rising steelwork. We managed to get a Team photo but despite the shelter afforded by the glass screens it was also very cold and we soon resembled Captain Scott and Co and as Jane is related to Captain Oates we decided that we’d seek the relative warmth of the lower level once more before things got worse.

There is no time limit for a visit and I can see it a good idea to get there on a fine day and take sandwiches and enjoy watching the lights of London come on. According to the jolly guides the view is sensational. The viewers help and are free to use. The management of the visitors is very good and despite it not being a paid for experience, for us, the numbers entering were realistic so it is safe to say that it probably won’t ever appear crowded. At the moment there are no refreshments but there are toilets and wheelchair access is catered for. The thing you won’t get to see (unless you ask politely) is the rather exclusive Ladies and Gents with views. Yes it is true, they have toilets with arguably the best views in the world and if you are at all worried there are blinds you can pull down! Why would you though?

We’d been up there a couple of hours during a white out but would we go again and pay? Yep, not a shadow of a doubt but its best considered as ‘weather permitting’. It is also probably best to pre-book not least because it is cheaper but we all agreed that the later slots (sunset) would almost certainly get booked up so turning up on the off-chance would not be advisable.

The descent was the reverse of the entry with the exit through the, to-be-expected, touristy memento shop, then up escalators into the newly re-developed square that now fronts London Bridge Station. This area has now been designated the ‘London Bridge Quarter’ which fair made us laugh. Outside it was still raining, a different world to that we’d just witnessed. “Its snowing up there we announced to the passing world,” and got looks of sympathy in return. If you have never been to this part of London before across the road is Southwark Cathedral, a real gem of a place unknown to many, or you could wander along the South Bank down to the Tate Modern and cross the former wibbly wobbly bridge to St Pauls. As token locals we elected to adjourn to the Lord Clyde for a bevy. This pub is the last of the real south London pubs and was the regular for John and the late Tony Patey (along with Thermal Aircraft customers) for many a year. They do a very fine pint of T.E.A. from the Hogs Back Brewery and salt beef sandwiches, a rare treat. In true Dickensian tradition the electric was off so the place was lit by candlelight. It was really like going back in time, thank the Lord for the storm curtains. Literally just around the corner, in a gap between the buildings, you get, arguably, one of the best views of The Shard making it seem very remote. How strange. Marks out of ten? Despite the weather it was a resounding ten. Guess what? Tuesday dawned clear and bright. Never mind we will start saving and return.

The Shard is open from 9.00 until 22.00 (last admission 20.30) and tickets are best booked in advance to save a couple of quid and avoid the queues that are bound to build up during the day. Advance tickets are £24.95 for adults and £18.95 for children. On the day its £29.95 for adults and £23.95 for children but entry is subject to ticket availability. Their blurb says that certain items cannot be brought in to The View including large bags and rucksacks, generally over 22 x 15 x 8 inches (55 x 38 x 20 cm) or other large equipment. Folded pushchairs can be left in the designated area in the booking hall for free but bags and coats cannot. Open containers of food or drink cannot be brought into The View so don’t open your champagne in the foyer! Tickets for The View are non-transferable and non-refundable and you’ll need to bring some form of identification if you pre-book. The View website for information and bookings. Links to all the luvvie fascinating stuff including the conceptual stuff. Super. brilliant 360º scene from The View without the clouds!!! Well worth a look.

Piccies courtesy of Window on the World, Ed Lubbock, Barry and The Shard.