diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 18, 2016

What does the View From The Shard look like in thick fog? I think you can guess, but I've been up to check anyway.

I've never seen the visitor entrance to the Shard as busy as it was yesterday, and I've been up a lot. Back in January Londoners were offered a special annual season ticket, and it cost less a single ascent, so I snapped up one of those and have been back several times since. I've been up in sun, in no cloud, in low cloud, in rain and at sunset, the latter twice, with fog the only significant weather phenomenon that'd so far eluded me. Generally any fog burns off well before 10am, which is when The View opens up to the public, which is good news for any normal visitor wanting to go up top. But when a veil of grey descended over the capital and lingered right through Saturday morning, I felt I had to dash.

Saturday morning, especially in the run-up to Christmas, is a particularly popular time to pre-book a slot up the Shard. Families roll in from the suburbs and further afield, usually as a treat or for a celebration, and given how much they've paid no weather forecast will put them off. But in this case the news was bad, with a member of staff placed out front to pass on the gloomy message. "There is no view."
In the case of bad weather we offer all guests our London Landmarks Guarantee with every ticket - you’ll be walking on air amongst the clouds, but if they spoil your view, you can return for free! If you cannot see at least three of the following landmarks - The London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Gherkin, Tower Bridge and One Canada Square - on the day of your visit, we will let you return within 3 months for free! Staff at the ticket desk will let you know on the day if the Visibility Guarantee has been authorised and will arrange your return ticket.
Conditions have to be pretty terrible not to be able to see Tower Bridge, which is less than half a mile away. St Paul's and the Gherkin aren't that much further, so are easily seen even in driving rain, meaning the weather can be abysmal and the Visibility Guarantee still doesn't apply. But fog is another matter - this is after all the tallest building in Western Europe - and then there's no quibble.

Families with over-optimistic printouts queued up at the cashdesks to get their dates swapped. "Sorry, it's quite busy over Christmas and New Year, the next Saturday we can do for you is 14th January. Or you can go up now, and if the sky clears that's your view, but if it doesn't then when you come back down we'll give you a voucher for another time." It's an impressively flexible offer, and precisely what's needed at such a weather dependent attraction, but still leaves most families somewhat out of pocket. Most of those queuing with me had travelled miles to be here, with rail tickets now in need of being booked again, or a tank of petrol gone to waste.

But the queue for the security check was still longer than I'd ever seen it before. Many people didn't believe the view could be that bad, or wanted to go up anyway because they were here, and then they could have their proper visit later. They waited patiently to have their photo taken - not for security, but so they could be flogged a print later, presumably in front of a less grey backdrop. They picked up an audio-visual guide to tell them more about what they could see, even though they probably wouldn't be able to see anything. And then they queued patiently for the lifts.

The first lift whisks you up 32 floors, unexpectedly quickly, and invariably makes your ears pop. There's then an interior shuffle, on a landing with no windows, before a further 35-floor ascent. I took the ride with more passengers than I'd ever been crammed in with previously, including a family here to celebrate their son's 9th birthday. You can probably imagine the look on Tom's face when Mum broke into a chorus of "Happy Birthday To You", and the relief on his reddened brow when none of the surrounding strangers joined in. You can also probably imagine his disappointment on reaching the 69th floor and discovering that there was indeed no view whatsoever. "Awww Mum, these are the most expensive clouds ever!"

Having been up the Shard several times before I know how excellent the view can be. It's no understatement to say that all of London is laid out below, often beneath a ragingly impressive sky. But not in fog. The view beyond the windows was uniformly white and featureless, with no hope of seeing any feature other than one's reflection. There was no way of telling you were on the highest viewing platform in London, suspended 240m above the Thames, and no easy way to imagine unless you'd been up before. It was just like being in an aeroplane while it climbs through clouds, an essentially pointless panorama.

Being British, several visitors put a brave face on it. They wandered around the enclosed floor and around the open Skydeck, a few internal staircases higher, to confirm that no view existed in any compass direction. They rang their friends to tell them they were up the Shard in fog. They took family photos to confirm their predicament, and offered their cameras to members of the Shard's staff to take some too. Their children carried activity sheets entitled 'Spot London's Famous Landmarks', even though a blank sheet of paper would have been more appropriate. Many didn't stay for very long.

Others turned inwards and took advantage of the only alternative entertainment, namely the bar. The operators know they have a captive audience up here, and also that many have turned up for a celebration, so the most-prominently promoted drink is a plastic goblet of champagne. Ten quid, kerching, and they've made even more easy money out of your visit. Alternatively at this time of year there's mulled wine, and a variety of bottled beers and soft drinks, and the hot chocolate sells well too because it's cold outside. Almost all the lingering visitors bought a beverage of some kind, and many sat down on the astroturf with their backs to the cloud, and slowly sipped.

Except not everything was white. If you looked up, the sky was blue, not immediately above but higher. The tip of the building was in full illumination, such is the difference 60m makes, and swirls of cloud dissipated somewhere inbetween. Also the sun was visible, low in the winter sky, as a faint bleached disc beyond the enveloping mist. At one point the light brightened to the stage where it cast shadows on the Skydeck, hinting that perhaps the cloud might lift after all, but then it dissolved away again. I watched as wisps of cloud ducked through the gash on one side of the observation deck and out of the other, and marvelled at being so close to the upper limit of the atmospheric interface. I know you can see this kind of thing up a mountain any time, but rarely in such comfort.

The ultimate fog experience is to be present when the top of the cloud level dips below the observation deck. One member of staff told me he'd been working here for two years and never seen it. Another said it had happened that very morning, but only for the first fifteen minutes after opening, and she'd be fortunate enough to be on duty up top at the time. The whole of London had been covered by a blanket of sunlit cloud, with just the tip of One Canada Square in Docklands poking through, which must have looked amazing. But by quarter past ten the cloud had lifted slightly, and the view had disappeared, and it looked like staying disappeared for the rest of the day. Damn, missed.

Anyway, that's the ninth time I've been up the Shard this year, which I'd like to claim as one of the best London bargains ever. From that initial £20.16 outlay each individual ascent has cost me £2.24, which is phenomenal value for money compared to other central London attractions. Even better I didn't have to book my slots in advance, I could simply turn up, and at no time has the place been so busy they've turned me away. I got the weather conditions I wanted, and pinpoint visibility, not to mention dusk in burning red, whereas the pre-bookers had to make do with whatever they were given. Plus I got to see the sun yesterday, which is more than almost every other Londoner did.

There's no news yet on whether the Shard will offer a 'Love London' card special offer next year. They've already hiked the cost of this year's to £40.95, and it expires on New Year's Eve, and I bet most people who bought one didn't make nearly as much use of theirs as they intended. I'm still not sure I'd pay full whack just to go up once, it does seem steep, but thousands obviously do. Don't get me wrong, it's been amazing, but now I've overdosed I feel no urgent need to ever come back. And I'm glad I've seen the View From The Shard in fog, if only to reassure you not to bother.

» My report from January (fine and clear)
» My report from February (approaching sunset)
» My report from March (dull and wet)
» 9 photos from my December visit (fog)
» 50 photos from up the Shard in all weathers [slideshow]

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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