London's newest public park opened yesterday. Depending very much on your definition of park. And your definition of public.
The Sky Garden is a three-storey atrium at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street, a skyscraper which you may know better as the Walkie Talkie, or possibly That Heat Ray Building Which Burns Cars. It's not quite one of London's very tallest buildings, indeed it doesn't quite scrape the top 10. But it's been built in a part of the City that nearly but doesn't quite have very tall buildings, approximately on a straight line between the Gherkin and the Shard, hence it stands out from the crowd somewhat. When planning permission was being sought almost a decade ago the developers pledged free public access to the top floors where a lush garden would be built, which sounded delightful, and the project was duly given the go-ahead. And this month those top floors have finally opened, revealing something that's less of a garden and more a handful of restaurants in a glass box in the sky. Plus a viewing terrace with some damned impressive views.
To enter - that's pre-booked visitors only - don't go to the office-based reception at the front of the building. The Sky Garden entrance is round the back, where some pleasant smiling staff will welcome you and scan your ticket and check your ID. They're still bedding in procedures at the moment, so they accidentally told me, and the decision not to adopt an e-ticket scenario was probably a mistake. But once someone's hunted through a sheaf of computer printout to find your name, and scanned your belongings for explosives, over-sized umbrellas and illegal bottles of water, you'll be inside soon enough. There are two express lifts, with buttons only for the lift lobby on the 20th and the roof, and they'll whisk you up to the 35th in thirty seconds flat. Expect your ears to pop, and if that comes a surprise then you simply haven't ridden enough skyscraper lifts recently.
Whoa! You step out into a three-storey glass atrium, which would be large enough for a game of football were it not on a precipitous slope. At ground level, if you can describe 150m up like that, is the first food and drink experience, the Sky Pod Bar. This is essentially a bar enclosure with a scattering of tables across the floor towards the main window, which is the opening immediately above the Concave Mirror Of Death. There aren't many tables, the owners are clearly attempting an exclusive feel rather than cramming punters in, and it turns out much of the view below is obscured if you sit down. For a clearer perspective an outside terrace is available, essentially so that smokers can go outside even on the 35th floor, because, priorities. Unfortunately it's not open yet - the security guard said maybe by the end of February. And that was just as well yesterday as the rain beat down forming long puddles on the concrete, indeed I was quite glad not be allowed through the revolving doors.
There are two kinds of Sky Garden experience: in daylight and after dark. I can't speak for the former, but I suspect the views are fantastic, and if you time your visit just before sunset possibly doubly so. Instead I can tell you what it's like to visit after dark, and on a wet windy day at that. It's dark, that's what it is. A skeleton of metal arches over your head, relatively dimly lit, and the majority of the interior is so shadowy that I couldn't read the dial on my camera when I wanted to change its settings. All the better for staring out through the windows, you might think, except the views aren't quite as amazing as you'd hope when all is twinkling lights through ribs and glass. The meanders of the Thames yes, the Tower of London, sort-of, the Olympic Park, not really. Indeed the only properly wowspectacle after dark is the trio of Tower 42, Cheesegrater and Gherkin lined up to the north, from a unique angle that makes the office workers milling around the upper floors look like ants.
At the centre of the Sky Garden, surrounded by open space, is an architecturally undistinguished stack of dining rooms. These contain the two restaurants, one on top of and a bit further back than the other. The Darwin Brasserie on Level 36 exists as a means to serve food in a glass box with grandstand views. Grab a window seat and you could be dining on buffalo mozzarella and braised ox cheeks while the majority of South London spreads out beneath you (or insert any other compass direction except north). Or, as one of the diners I overheard said, with regret, "I guess someone'll have to face the wrong way - go on then, I'll do that." As for the Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill on Level 37, this has gratuitously frosted glass windows meaning you might as well be eating anywhere, making it more of a luxury enclave for the quaffing of oysters and caviar than a sightseeing diner. Think City deals rather than tourist meals, because, priorities.
And around the edge of the restaurant tower is that sky garden I haven't got round to mentioning yet. In truth it's only on two sides, each adjacent to a long open staircase, where two great terraces tumble down planted with palms and other foliage. It resembles more a sloping conservatory than any kind of park, or perhaps an updated Victorian temperate house, which is essentially what this is. The restaurants may be heated and air-conditioned but the remainder of the atrium reflects external conditions, hence wrapping up is to be recommended in winter. Meanwhile on the upper terrace the only vegetation is a few trees in pots, this huge space having clearly been identified as ideal for receptions, weddings, corporate events or any other upmarket function that would go better with an elevated touch.
And, unbelievably for such a desirable location, this public perimeter space was pretty much empty. I know it was the first day of public opening, and perhaps things were getting off to a gentle start, but a ridiculously tiny number of non-diners had gained entry while I was there. Perhaps thirty people if I'm generous, whereas there's the capacity for the perimeter walkway to take a couple of hundred, no problem. I wasn't complaining, I was able to get photos with almost nobody in them rather than having a gaggle of clustered silhouettes up against the window in every shot. But really, are the owners having a laugh, paying merely lip service to free public access? I was impressed when I first heard that each Sky Garden visit is notionally 90 minutes long, but my experience suggests most people don't last even half that long before descending, hence the cap on visitor numbers looks to be an over-reaction against an overcrowding problem that may never exist.
There are two kinds of Sky Garden experience: the paid-for and the free. The paid-for option involves booking a table at a restaurant or bar, and the fee is however much you decide to spend on your meal/wine/cocktail/sandwich/whatever. At the open plan Sky Pod Bar a bowl of soup costs £3.95, which sounds like a cheap ticket, but you know you'd spend more than that. At the Darwin Brasserie a bowl of soup costs £7.50, and a side of steamed spinach costs £5, so that's likely to be more draining on your plastic. And at the Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill a bowl of soup costs £9, while a whole Dover Sole costs £42, so this is the clearly the luxury option. Not surprisingly, current availability is in inverse proportion to cost, with January dinners at the Sky Pod mostly booked out, and the Fenchurch available pretty much whenever you fancy.
Or there's the free option. The Sky Garden is indeed available for anyone to visit free of charge, true to the terms of its lease agreement. But it's also very popular, as you'd expect. Technically you can book a ticket with three days notice, but in reality every day in January and February is already taken, along with every weekend in March, with Monday 2nd March currently the first date with any availability. As someone who booked last week before the world leapt in, all I can do is smile smugly and suggest you keep a patient eye on the site and grab an Easter treat when one finally appears. Or you could book yourself a breakfast or lunch at the Sky Pod, these are generally available, except then the moneymakers have won. It's well worth the ascent, of course, simply for a look around. But to explore London's newest public park in the way originally attended, do try to visit the Sky Garden as a genuine member of the public.