From tomorrow morning the observation decks at the tallest building in Europe will open to the public. You'll be able to take the lift to the 68th floor and peer down over London, weather permitting, and all for only £24.95.
Over the last month hundreds of journalists and bloggers have been given the chance to go up to the top for free, and take lots of photos, and then write about the experience for publicity. Last weekend it was the turn of Southwarkresidents, 4500 of whom snapped up free tickets and enjoyed seeing their borough from a newangle.
So I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to visit the Shard myself, and to take a look inside, in advance of the official opening. Here's a report of my visit, and maybe it'll encourage you to take the trip too.
View from the Shard
To gain access to the Shard's toppermost floors, you don't head to the obvious ground level doors. Instead you head one level down, following a series of makeshift portable signs to the gloomy passage below. Look for the tall portal in the arches opposite the florist, in a location where otherwise you'd not choose to linger. A pair of electronic information boards have been erected this week, one on either side of the doors. These have information about the day's ticket availability in half hourly slots, and are currently coloured red throughout because the sightseeing decks aren't open yet. Below is a list of ticket prices, where anyone who's not booked in advance is in for a shock. The turn-up-and-go admission price is £100, pitched gobsmackingly high in the hope that rich wealthy foreign visitors will swan along and pay anyway. How glad was I to be gaining admittance to the building for free?
From here let's take the scenic escalator to the next floor up. This is a spacious ride, with clear views into the main lobby on St Thomas Street where a considerable amount of fitting-out has yet to be completed. Visitors are gaining access to The Shard in advance of corporate clients, which can't be bad. At the top of the ascent keep right, rather than taking the direct route onwards to the new bus station. This'll be a most convenient connection when it's fully unveiled, but it's not ready yet. At this point you pass the Shard's main entrance, where suited security guards waited patiently (in front of and behind the revolving doors) to direct mere members of the public elsewhere. Best shuffle by.
From here it's only a few steps to the main concourse at London Bridge station. A brand new circulation space has opened as part of ongoing redevelopment work, with a long row of ticket barriers at the far end beyond a central void. Along one side is a row of seats, entirely insufficient for expected numbers of waiting passengers. And beyond that is the foot of the Shard, its slanting glass walls slicing down to intersect the concourse at ground level. Raise your eyes and you can see the upper floors rising to a lofty point beyond the suspended roof. It's time at last to step inside the first of four interior spaces.
This tour of the Shard begins at Caffè Nero Express - a tiny outlet, barely more than a counter and some shelves. There's nowhere to sit down, indeed half a dozen customers queuing on the chequerboard tiles could bring the place to a halt. But buy a coffee here, beyond the glass façade, and you've just stepped inside London's newest iconic building. There's a similar buzz nextdoor at Upper Crust - Baguette Specialist. This tiny space could be filled by two travellers and a suitcase, but nevertheless lies entirely within the Shard's perimeter. Here stuffed bread products are lined up beneath an ad for tom yum chicken, while a vintage clock ticks silently on a white-painted artificial brick wall. The excitement continues at the next retail outlet, slightly further back, part-hidden behind a pillar. From here the smell of baked pastry wafts across the station concourse courtesy of the West Cornwall Pasty Company. Wave £4.49 across the divide and a "pasty and hot drink" combination could be yours. But this is a very small concession, barely two metres in depth, so only the staff behind the counter can truly claim to be inside the Shard.
After these three minor incursions, it's the final gateway which is the true highlight of this special tour. Located at the far end, by the ticket barriers, only now does the visitor enters the true belly of the beast. This portal stretches back back back, past two concessions selling croissants and coffee to a discerning audience. Here at last is breadth, and depth, and a WHSmith which fills the Shard's southern corner. Won't you look at that view? The glories of London and the City are splashed across the covers of various current affairs magazines, the people so tiny, especially from the other side of the shelves.
But that's nothing compared to the glories ahead. An entire branch of Marks and Spencer Simply Food has opened deep inside the exterior of the Shard, and it's stacked from wall to wall with goodies. Bouquets have been laid out at the entrance by a group of expert flower arrangers, creating a majestic display to welcome you inside. Also in a priority location by the door are biscuits, racks of them, for commuters who can't go four hours without gulping down a traybake. And then the floor splits into three parallel aisles, one with a lot of sandwiches, one with a lot of fruit, and one with an abundance of wine. It's a magical space, where once you've entered you can linger for as long as you choose, and maybe even take away a souvenir of your visit.
If the weather's bad, never fear, that needn't make a difference. A long row of electronic devices are arrayed along an inner wall, allowing virtual transactional contact with the outside world. Smartly dressed staff will assist you to scan and pay, as your time within this great building draws to a close. But take time to stand and stare one last time, looking back past the French bread specialists to the ticket gates and the station beyond. See commuters waiting for a platform announcement, see tourists slurping on a latte. See the entire world bustling by, see London in microcosm. That's the View From The Shard, that is.