diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 28, 2008

Greenwich Wheel

London already has an observation wheel, and very successful it is too. But you can't see everything, even from 135 metres up. You can't see the World Heritage Site at Greenwich, for example. So now there's a brand new observation wheel further downriver, for the next three months, to rectify that omission.

Greenwich WheelThe Greenwich Wheel is run by incurable optimists. It should have been up and turning last weekend, but delivery from a central European location took considerably longer than expected. The start date was pushed back, and pushed back, and pushed back again until the wheel finally (allegedly) opened for business on Thursday evening. So I thought I'd go for a spin yesterday lunchtime, just to give the operators time to bed in. Alas, my arrival in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College may have been somewhat premature.

"We'll be open in about 15 minutes," said the man in the ticket booth. This was a little strange, given that it was now quarter to twelve and the wheel had been due to open at ten. But activity all around the structure hinted that not everything was yet ready. A lone workman was hanging from a precipitous ladder tweaking the pivot in the centre of the wheel, while a mass of lesser staff milled around the boarding steps with tools, plastic ties and planks of wood. Somehow the 15 minute target didn't seem entirely achievable.

An hour later I was back. The wheel was now turning, but all the pods were still empty. "We'll be open in about 15 minutes," said the lady working the back of the queue. Hmm, I'd heard that before. But I waited. And waited. The action behind the scenes didn't seem terribly urgent. Three junior workmen were giving the special VIP capsule an unhurried rubdown with blue kitchen roll and unbranded Windolene. Front of house staff were grinning and gossiping beside the ticket booth, occasionally answering the queries of the increasingly bored queue. Still 15 minutes? Apparently so. Gradually many of those waiting drifted away, increasingly frustrated at a lack of credible information.

By quarter past one the VIP capsule was gleaming, but no tickets had been sold. The queue thinned further. Hmm, that official-looking bloke standing around with a clipboard, was he a health and safety advisor giving the wheel the once over? Seemingly so. "We're just waiting for a signature, we'll be open in about... 15 minutes." This seemed the appropriate moment to admit defeat and wander away. Good timing, because the heavens opened shortly afterwards and utterly drenched all those still waiting. And who wants to ride an observation wheel during a heavy downpour?

Greenwich Wheel viewI had other things to do, so I returned at three in the hope that some risk assessment miracle had occurred. Success. There was now no queue whatsoever, so I paid my £7 and was ushered directly into my own private carriage. Thwack, I bumped my head on the roof (clearly the health and safety bloke hadn't done a very thorough job). A bunch of bankery blokes then filled the capsule beside me, having (unbelievably) paid £60 to go round with a glass of champagne in their hands. And at last, up we went, right to the top, and stopped.

Ooh, not a bad view, not bad at all. The towers of Canary Wharf, the Thames sweeping round past the Dome [photo], and all the Georgian splendour of the Old Royal Naval College [photo]. Greenwich Park rising up to the distant Observatory [photo], the remains of a charred tea clipper and the glass-domed entrance to the Foot Tunnel. The view would have been nicer in sunshine (and without a splattering of blotchy raindrops on the windows) but it was still a fine and pleasant experience. The gondola rocked slightly in the wind, reminding me that I was dangling 60 metres above the ground, all alone, inside a temporary structure that had only just received its Health and Safety certificate. Ulp. I managed to convince myself that now was not the time for such wobbly thoughts.

After a few minutes of hanging, the wheel continued to rotate. It rotated fairly fast, especially compared to the sedate pace of the London Eye, which made taking photographs surprisingly difficult. "Ooh that would be a great shot, hang on while I line the camera up, damn the wheel's moved on." Thankfully we were due more than one revolution. Four circuits in total - no waiting at the top on further passes, but sufficient opportunity to soak up the full high-above-SE10 experience. And then, after not quite 15 minutes, back to ground level where a minimal queue of two toddlers and their Mum were waiting to board. They were the lucky ones, they spent longer in the air than they did waiting. Pick your time carefully and you might too.

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