You may know it as the Nat West Tower, but it hasn't been that for years. It's now Tower 42, named after the number of floors within (and not as some posthumous tribute to Douglas Adams). The top level is open to the public all year, you don't have to wait until the third week in September. But to get in at any other time requires booking into the champagne bar and agreeing to a £10 minimum spend... which, when you've seen the price of the drinks, looks impossible to undershoot. And to get in for Open House requires timing and dexterity, because only a handful of tours are organised with only a handful of spaces available on each. I've failed annually for years, but this summer I managed to reload the appropriate booking page during the requisite 90 second window before all 140 places vanished to sight. Excellent, I thought, and about time too. Now all I need is for the weather to be good.
The weather was rubbish. It could have been worse - Saturday dawned with torrential downpours, which thankfully cleared away before tour number one. But low cloud cover and poor visibility plagued the capital all day, with only very occasional flashes of sunlight firing through the mist to illuminate a small portion of distant rooftops. Ah well, I thought, I'll make the most whatever, and the view was still stunningly lofty all the same. [15 murky photos]
When it was built in 1981 the Nat West Tower was the tallest building in London, nudging down the Post Office Tower by half a dozen metres. Its cantileverdesign was cutting edge, with three chevrons of offices suspended from a central core, and famously resembling the bank's logo when viewed from above. Unfortunately being a pioneering structure proved problematic, as the interior proved entirely unsuitable for cabling and the narrow office space precluded large trading floors. Nat West moved out in 1998, and the building's since been filled by a variety of tenant organisations, currently including almost no well known companies whatsoever.
Tower 42 lies between Old Broad Street and Broadgate, in a golden segment of the City where high rise development is permitted, untouched by sightlines from protected views. Its modern entrance is via a glazed atrium added onto the front of the building, rising to a mezzanine level with funky seating, almost like you're entering a hotel. Those who work here have separate lifts, but those destined for the champagne bar are guided down a narrow passage (decked out with furniture better suited to a tart's boudoir) to a small express lift. This has only two buttons - presumably so that even the tipsiest patron can operate it - and the journey to level 42 takes only 45 seconds. Your ears may pop, twice.
I was expecting something swankier. Vertigo 42 is a pricey venture, a bankers' destination of choice, but the bar is basically a narrow passage with chairs. That's because the 42nd floor consists mostly of core functionality shielded by floor to ceiling mirrors, leaving only a triangular-shaped walkway around the edge of the building. A concierge's desk sits by the entrance, at the far end is a hatch through which tapas can be served, and everything inbetween is for the punters. Perch on one of the swish coloured chairs, all of which of course face outwards, and rest your flute on the glass shelf. Some of the shelves are labelled with the name of the main thing to see in that direction, but the letters have peeled, adding to a sense that the bar would be nothing special were it not for the stunning view.
On a clearday, or twinkling afterdark, I bet it is a stunning view. On Saturday, however, only the Square Mile and its immediate surrounds could be picked out in magnificent detail. Buses trundled diminutively across London Bridge, taxis queued to pass traffic lights outside the Bank of England, and a tiny tube train appeared briefly in a cutting outside Liverpool Street station. The Thames beyond Tower Bridge faded into a monochrome ribbon, with One Canada Square a vague off-white smudge on the horizon. "Canary Wharf was really clear earlier," said the staff member on supervision duty, somewhat unhelpfully, "and the roof of the Velodrome was nicely lit up." Even looking beyond St Paul's proved problematic, made worse when something moister and blacker rolled in.
Despite the blanket of grey it was still simple to judge the tower's ranking in the local skyscraper league table simply by looking straight out of the window. Smaller than the Shard but taller than the Walkie Talkie, the latter with its upper garden deck clearly seen a few levels below. Smaller than the Heron Tower but taller than the Gherkin, the latter poking up its bulbous head above the machinery for cleaning Tower 42's windows. Quite convincingly smaller than the Cheesegrater, otherwise known as the Leadenhall Building, another very popular Open House venue this year. And taller than absolutely everything to the west across central London and Westminster, with even the Barbican's residential towers looking stumpy and stunted in comparison.
Stuck to the serving hatch I found a leftover order for 15 bottles of champagne at £59.50 each, topped off with three bottles of wine for a total drinks bill three pounds short of a grand. Somebody had a good week, on the trading floor, I thought, or else that's small change from an annual bonus being blown to impress a group of friends. But I was more than pleased to have had the opportunity to come up here for nothing, plus the Open House bonus of being able to walk around for half an hour rather than being seated facing the same segment of London all evening. So I'll wish you good luck when the 90-second booking window for Tower 42 comes around next summer, and hope that the weather plays ball on the day of your ascent.