As a Londoner, I don't often visit the most popular paid attraction in town. That's partly because it's damned expensive, but also because it's seen as a thing that only tourists do. So it's probably no coincidence that I only took a spin because a tourist was in town, in this case my brother down from Norfolk, and with a few hours after work to fill. He hadn't been in years, and neither had I, and the sun was lowering in the sky, and hell why not?
The LondonEye's been operating now for 15 years, having opened to the public on my 35th birthday in March 2000. In that time it's gone from laughing stock to international icon, and is also a prime canvas for any brand keen to stamp itself onto global consciousness. British Airways kicked things off as main sponsor, then Merlin Entertainments and EDF Energy took their turn, until this year the big wheel was taken over by a well known purveyor of sugary drink. I was interested to see if they'd made any changes to the experience as a result, or if anything else was significantly different since my last visit, as well of course as enjoying the view.
It costs how much?! I remembered mid-teens, but the turn up and ride fee is now a whopping £21.50. Book online and you can get 10% off, for what it's worth, but for a family this soon adds up for what's essentially a half hour whirl in the sky. Book online and they also hide the cheapest price beneath three different versions of 'Fast Track Entry', the fully flexible variant of which costs a few pence short of £38. In high summer there might be a point to avoiding the queue, but on a winter weekday it's pretty much non-existent, and on our visit I had to laugh when the Fast Track queue was longer than the non-existent Standard.
Since 2009, the first thing to do after checking in is to visit the 4D Experience. I'm always nervous of any attraction whose name pays a blatant disregard to science, and even more nervous when the first thing they do is line you up against a green screen to take your photo. The Experience turned out to be a mini cinema into which about a hundred punters at a time can be corralled and shown a brief film about how mega-fantastic central London is. There are no words, instead a seagull soars around various landmarks, and the whole thing comes to life because you're wearing 3D specs. The fourth dimension comes from smoke, breeze and foam fired at appropriate moments, which when you're watching a film about a seagull makes you fear precisely what might be squirted next.
A few minutes later you're done, nicely pepped but not exactly blown away. After the firework finale the chimes of Big Ben play the sponsor's jingle, because marketing is crass like that, and then it's out to face the first upselling experience. "Would you like to look at your photo?" We declined, because we didn't want to pay extra for a souvenir portrait of two middle-aged men looking cajoled in front of a jaunty graphic. The lady behind the desk seemed aghast we didn't even want to look, which suggested either she was very good at acting or else a significant part of her wages is based on rates of follow-through purchase.
And then it's outside to the wheel itself, in this case (as I hinted) with no further wait. There's a security check where the correct answer to "Do you have any bladed objects?" is "No", to ensure you don't end up trapped in the sky with a violent nutter. There's another forced photo opportunity, which might be for flogging later or might be so that MI5 can quickly check your face against a database of known violent nutters. And there's also a small refreshment stall, in case you can't go half an hour without a bag of crisps, where a certain bottle of red fizzy drink is displayed in a very prominent position. Ready?
The wheel goes round quite fast, or at least that's how it feels as you're about to step on. The Eye's onboarding operation is very efficiently choreographed, from the brief bomb-frisk before entry to the capsule door closing behind the final entrant. We had only eight other people with us, rather than the maximum 25, which turned out to be great later because they didn't clog every space in front of a window when we fancied a change of view. Our fellow riders also seemed to be mostly foreign tourists, so were initially awed by the elevation, then much quieter because they weren't quite sure what the various landmarks actually were. Had they been interested they could have looked this up on one of the "Samsung interactive capsule guides" (a scrolling map on a fixed tablet with Wikipedia-lite info attached), but most ended up sat in the middle having a chat instead.
No commentary is piped into the cabin, nor any intrusive audio visual feature tour, and the circuit's all the better for it. Instead you can focus on the sights of London as you rise, first in the immediate vicinity and then increasingly further as successive rooftop levels are passed. The Palace of Westminster's the star throughout, but gradually the parks beyond appear, and the remainder of the West End, and that must be Hampstead, and look there's Wembley, and that could be Heathrow, and blimey doesn't London stretch for miles? The Thames is seen clearly down towards Vauxhall, but a bend means it's less obvious into the City, with Tower Bridge pretty much obscured by development in the vicinity. And only true south Londoners spend much time looking any further south than the Shard or Waterloo station, sorry, it's genuinely not so interesting in that direction.
Because of the way circles work, you spend a lot of time nearly at the top. These are the minutes you've come for, lording it over the capital, the King or Queen of all you survey. And OK, so the viewing platform at the Shard is almost twice as high, but here you get Big Ben up close, and from above, which probably wins. The descent comes almost imperceptibly, until you suddenly realise you can't see the good stuff any more, at which point it's almost time for yet another photo opportunity. The management are really keen for you to take part in this one, so they trigger an announcement in English over the PA directing you towards a special zone painted on the floor, and have stuck a "look over here and smile" pictogram on one of the struts immediately before the flashpoint comes round. I was therefore highly amused when everyone else in our capsule failed to notice, with the end result later a sullen line of backs to the camera.
The movement of the wheel reveals itself again as you step off, though in truth it's less than a kilometre an hour so shouldn't feel so disconcerting. And then, yes, the final photo-flogging moment (over ten quid, seriously?) and another gift shop in case you feel happier buying gassy fizz now you're back at ground level. Rest assured that my brother and I enjoyed our rotation enormously, without any of the add-ons, because there really is no other experience quite like it. But pick your moment. We chose fiery dusk, which was a winner, and hugely better than accidentally pre-booking overcast skies. And right now, before the main tourist season kicks in, is an ideal time to ride the Eye too. London's rooftops look just as good after work on a wintry Wednesday as on a summer Saturday, plus there's none of that unnecessary queueing to do, and you might even get a capsule almost to yourself.