diamond geezer

 Wednesday, March 11, 2015

There's only one way to fly above the Thames, and it isn't by cablecar. To buzz the heart of the capital, higher even than the Shard, what you need is a helicopter.

It doesn't come cheap. A sightseeing tour through London costs in the order of a hundred times more than a Dangleway flight. But then it isn't something you're likely to do on a regular basis, indeed generally only the once, so just as well it packs sufficient memories for a lifetime. [20 photos]

Be wary of booking a helicopter flight as the highlight of a milestone birthday. I spent my 50th trooping down to the Surrey countryside under increasingly overcast skies, sitting in the aerodrome cafe with BestMate while the pilot ummed and ahhed about weather conditions, then trooping all the way back again when it became apparent the mist and murk wasn't going to clear. I've had better birthdays. But given the chance to reschedule we grabbed sunny Tuesday instead, trooped all the way back down to Redhill and had a second go. And this time the experience was fan-bloody-tastic.

I can see why helicopter travel is so popular amongst the extremely rich. There's none of this faffing around at ground level, getting stuck in traffic or having to make that train connection. Instead you just strap in, stick your headphones on and go. The grass really does ripple as the rotors spin, and then you're a few inches up, and speeding off across the grass just like at the beginning of Treasure Hunt. Initially there's a residual feeling of "good grief I'm in a bubble in the sky being held up only by a rotating blade" but that soon fades and then you simply embrace the unique marvellousness of the experience.

They're fast, helicopters, so be warned that the experience speeds by. At 130mph you can get from almost Gatwick to the Thames in about ten minutes, with only a perfunctory glance at Outer London as it speeds by. I recognised Banstead Downs and Nonsuch Park, and Epsom Downs racecourse off to port, then Wimbledon Common and Centre Court, plus Wembley's ubiquitous arch immediately ahead. But it didn't take long to reach the Thames at Craven Cottage, where thankfully the tour slowed to focus on the good bit, and because "along the river" is the only way helicopters can go.

It is a mammoth task to take everything in. The pilot helped by pointing out the main points of interest along the way, but also had to keep breaking off to confirm our presence with Air Traffic Control. A lot of highrise building is taking place along the banks of the western Thames, which I guess is obvious from the ground but is even more blatant from above. Chelsea Harbour's an early example of up-in-the-air blandness, with Nine Elms and Vauxhall catching up fast. We flew way above Battersea's three chimneys, as yet unsurrounded, and look there's the tower a helicopter crashed into last year... no don't think about that.

Westminster crept up quickly, the surprise being quite how high above Big Ben we flew. Considerably above the London Eye too, which is just as well, and far too many well-known buildings to mentally tick off on the way. I think I spotted work, where on any normal Tuesday I'd have been sitting watching the helicopters going by, and now I was actually in one. Again it was all too easy to become blasé about the view, as if watching a particularly realistic computer game flythrough, when the reality was a tiny craft manoeuvring (impressively smoothly) in mid-air.

How lucky was I with the weather? Tuesday was a gloriously sunny day, and best of all the sun was very much behind us illuminating every building with glorious light. The Cheesegrater/Shard/Walkie Talkie combo looked particularly striking given that nothing much else was anywhere near our height. But there being two front seats, the pilot being in the one on the right, most of the southern bank of the river was obscured view as we passed. That meant the Shard got short shrift, but we were still flying (just) above the height of its uppermost spike so yah boo sucks to everyone down there on the upper observation deck.

After Tower Bridge (we weren't the Queen, we flew over rather than through), the gleaming curve of the Thames was particularly evident. Docklands quickly drew near, from distant cluster to in-your-face skyforest. And yes, we followed the great meander round to Greenwich, because copters can't cut through high finance, and back up towards the Dome. It was striking how little of the Greenwich peninsula has yet been built on, even fifteen years after the great Millennial clearance, and hence how much more development London has yet to come.

I'd forked out extra for the Olympic extension, not because it was necessarily great value for money but because it'd take me almost over my house. Approaching up the Lea the familiar sights of Stratford's sporting facilities were clearly seen, particularly the stadium where West Ham's extended roof is now partway through installation. Looking down on the Velodrome and the associated road circuit, I was immediately reminded of the multiplicity of aerial shots published before the 2012 Games, and now I could finally see the same amazing panorama for myself.

The Olympic Park done and dusted, it was time to fly back (over the Bow Flyover) and straight over Greenwich Park. Southeast London's suburbs weren't quite so packed with obviously memorable sights, but Blackheath, Beckenham and the residential avenues of Sanderstead scored a pretty much direct hit. Lowrise London really does go on and on for miles, or at least a couple of minutes, until the long tongue of Farthing Downs finally signalled the edge of suburbia.

It was all over too soon, in barely half an hour, as the grassy runway of Redhill Aerodrome drew near and we swooped in for a final turn. It took another three minutes for the rotors to calm down sufficiently to disembark, and then alas my time in a chopper was at an end. I can't fault the tour company, who were charming, friendly and accommodating, should you ever be thinking of shelling out a considerable number of pounds on your own high speed sightseeing spin. Just do all you can to bagsy the front seat beside the pilot for the best view, and try to pick a brilliant day for your flight, because I suspect that makes all the difference.

And, wow.

» Twenty aerial 'copter shots taken yesterday over London [slideshow]

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