Simon Calder: Look sharp if you want a Shard sunset
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 09 February 2013
The train just arriving at platform 16 of London Bridge station has been on a journey of less than 40 minutes – yet it has touched all four compass points. The service begins in West Croydon, and snakes through the suburbs pausing, in the correct order of rotation, at North Dulwich, East Dulwich and South Bermondsey.
Emerge from the ticket barrier at the terminus and you pass a sequence of enterprises that begins predictably enough: M&S Simply Food, Upper Crust, Caffe Nero. Suddenly, up pops the tallest building in Western Europe. New arrivals at London Bridge now have the choice of descending to the Jubilee or Northern Line, or ascending to the 72nd floor of the Shard. Last weekend, Britain acquired another tourist attraction in the exquisite shape of a glass and steel pyramid rising from the concourse of London Bridge station. The View from the Shard is the latest landmark on the tourist's globe. But is it the greatest? On opening day, I set out to find out.
The Shard transforms London's skyline for the better. But it could also transform your finances for the worse. By any measure you choose, this is the most expensive "altitude experience" in the world. Turn up on the day and book the next available tour, and you pay £29.95. Children aged 4-15 are £23.95. If you consider your personal wealth entitles you to jump the queue, £100 will buy immediate access – with no child reduction. With the viewing platform 800ft high, that is a rate of just 8ft for every £1 – an "altitude index" 10 times as expensive as nearby competitor, the Eiffel Tower.
To be fair, the View from the Shard strongly recommends booking in advance, and gives a fiver discount if you do. So I booked for the 5pm sunset slot and paid £24.95. Even at this, the cheapest option, each £1 buys just 32ft of latitude. The only altitude attractions close to that rate are the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Empire State Building in New York, where £1 translates to 40ft and 44ft respectively. Better value is offered by Tokyo's Sky Tree and the CN Tower in Toronto, both at 67ft per £1. For the best deal of all, go to Houston's JP Morgan Chase Tower. No barriers, no charge. Just take the lift to the 60th floor, walk to the picture window and see Texas laid out before you. On a clear day you may feel you can see to the end of the world, or at least the end of Texas; many Texans equate the two.
Shard and froideur
The Shard company promises a "premium quality experience with no waiting and no queues". In fact, just as at the Disney theme parks, my ticket was a qualification to queue. I joined the line at 4.40pm, and spent the next half-hour discovering a new term: Shard and froideur. I define it as shivering in the queue for a tall, sharp building, but it could also mean the pleasure that others in the line – at least those wise enough to have worn warm clothing – derived from my snuffling.
The security check is so airport-style that even the laptops-out rule is enforced. Then you take one lift to the 33rd floor and a second to the 67th. When you step out of the lift you see a vast pane of opaque glass. This is deliberate, to avoid the risk that jaw-dropping visitors will stand and stare rather than climbing one storey to the main viewing platform on the 68th floor – which, an hour after starting to queue, with the sun long set, I finally reached. And immediately cheered up.
London is suddenly unlocked by the Shard. This is a city view like no other, because London is a capital like no other. A lone colony of high-rises pops up to the east, in the shape of Canary Wharf. St Paul's looks dainty. The London Eye is distinct, but distinctly low rise. To the left, you see a new sight – a crescent of sapphire light at the top of the Perspective Building, the former headquarters of MI6. The spymasters' high-rise hideaway is now spied upon by every tourist in town.
Step up to the 72nd floor – partially open to the elements – and you get the freshest of perspectives, and to see how the arteries of the capital are constantly flowing. Yet there are no freeways, just streets radiating out on the ancient, straggly street plan defined by the centuries. What strikes you most about the View from the Shard is that London is a vast city on a human scale.
Sign of the times
From 800ft, it seems inconceivable that you are standing above a scruffy corner of Southwark that, five years ago, was a building site. Today, as you discover when you descend, it's a scruffy corner of Southwark that is currently a building site. Any hope that the Shard would help to boost the area are dashed by the official contractor's warning sign: "Sorry for an enconvenience. Padestrian access temperory closed."
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