diamond geezer

 Monday, September 20, 2004


gherk (verb): to queue for hours and hours in the hope that the final view will be worth the wait.

The centrepiece of London Open House weekend was the first public opening of the Swiss Re building, better known as the Gherkin. It's the right-hand building in this photo, lined up next to Tower 42 and Lloyd's, and was finally opened for business earlier this year. Thousands of people turned up over the weekend to visit this new London icon, hoping to look both inside and out, but the queues were horrendous and most of them went away disappointed. I was one of the lucky ones, eventually.

I'd heard stories of four hour queues on Saturday, and that more people had been turned away than actually got to look inside, so I was determined to arrive early on Sunday to stake my place in the line. I thought an hour early would be good enough, but I was wrong. I walked along the queue until I found the end, which took rather longer than I was expecting, and was unnerved to watch the queue lengthening at a rate of 5 metres a minute behind me. And then the waiting started. And then the waiting continued. We shuffled slowly forward in small irregular bursts, unable to see our target except reflected in the office blocks around us.

A fatalistic cameraderie developed amongst those in the queue. Some dashed off to nearby coffee shops to ease the boredom, while others found time to read the entire Sunday Times and all its supplements. After two hours we finally reached the foot of the Gherkin and could see the front of the queue, except that we still had one revolution of the building to go. One family gave up at this point and went off in search of alternative venues. The rest of us shivered slightly, gritted our teeth and continued our gradual progress clockwise.

I doubt that London has seen a queue this long since the Queen Mother snuffed it. There was one easy way to jump the queue, however, and that was to have signed up as an Open House volunteer. One flash of your special green badge and you were permitted to walk straight into the building without any wait whatsoever. And yes Elsie, I saw you swanning in through the side entrance just after 11 o'clock when I still had more than two hours to go.

At last, after 4½ hours, the long wait was finally over. We were ushered through security and into one of the high speed lifts that whisked us up to the 34th floor in 30 seconds flat. One more lift, a flight of stairs and we were on the 40th floor, the Gherkin's very top slice. Suddenly the wait was worthwhile. Elegant glass triangles rose to a peak in a ring above our heads. People were drawn magnetically to the windows, staring out at stupendous views in all directions. We were higher than the London Eye and I could see further across the capital (and beyond) than I have ever seen before. I was struck by how much green there was, and how beautiful the urban environment can be on a miniature scale. I joined the rest of the crowds in taking countless photographs and trying to pinpoint my house and various other landmarks. The white tablecloths that reflected up from the restaurant below spoiled the western view a little, but the whole experience was quite breathtaking.

And there was more. Lifts took us down to the 17th floor where we had the freedom to roam across 1600 square metres of as yet unoccupied office space. The views through the diamond windows were a little less spectacular than before, but easier to access and still most impressive. This was also a good opportunity to admire the internal architecture of Sir Norman Foster's signature building. There was a real feeling of light and space, as well as the illusion of curvature despite the fact that the only curved glass in the building was the lens we had seen at the very summit. Most of us also sampled the toilet facilities - welcome relief after five hours of abstinence. There was no rush, we were able to stay on the 17th floor for as long as we liked before finally descending contentedly to the ground.

A few hours later I was standing back outside my local tube station after a busy and successful Open House weekend. To the west, framed perfectly down Bow Road, stood the proud figure of the Gherkin. I smiled, knowing that three miles away on the top observation deck there were still people smiling back down at me.

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