The City of London isn't blessed with a great deal of public open space, because commercial buildings have always taken precedence over parks and gardens. So it's reassuring that its planning department has been encouraging the developers of new buildings to provide open space at roof level and, crucially, to allow free public access. The latest such elevated playground opened last week fifteen storeys above Fenchurch Street, and is surprisingly large, and you can just walk in. They call it The Garden at 120.
Head to the new highrise quarter south of Leadenhall Street, a modern maze of office receptions, lunch options and minimal sunlight. Hunt for the alley through the big splayed building, a passageway with a giant video screen on its roof. Importantly don't just walk over to the lift, because staff will give you such a look, but aim for the door into visitor reception where security are waiting. I was expecting a belts-off keys-out check, the detector arch being poised and ready, but refreshingly I was simply waved through and sent back to the now-smiling lift sentries. You press the buttons yourself. It's a swift ascent.
I didn't go wow on stepping out but someone else did, more for the scale of the space than its altitude. You emerge into the centre of an approximate quadrilateral, with steps leading down into the building and walkways to the perimeter. Much of the space consists of raised beds and pergolas, not yet entwined with the abundant wisteria shown in the architects' drawings. Several wooden benches are provided, along with further seating alongside a zigzag water feature. Screens seal off a couple of compounds which contain all the machinery a modern building needs on its roof, including a cage for the window cleaners. The promised coffee cart has not yet appeared.
The place to be is the walkway around the edge, safely protected from the drop by a slanting glass screen. This is great because it allows an uninterrupted 360° view, but less great because it disrupts any photograph you might attempt to take. Mucky glass isn't yet a problem here, but reflections definitely are on a sunny day, echoing the frustration of anyone who's taken a big lens up the Shard. Of course this visual interference doesn't stop everybody trying, or stepping back a bit for that all-important landscape selfie, or wandering around giving a running commentary into a camera for the benefit of audiences elsewhere. Far better to put your phone down and simply look out, and/or look down, and to feel a proper part of the surrounding cityscape.
The view from any high building in the City is dependent on its location, specifically how many taller buildings exist close by. In this case the view to the north is almost entirely blocked by adjacent towers, one the HQ of Willis Towers Watson on Lime Street, the other the so-called Scalpel. The latter has sensibly opaque windows, but the interior of the Willis Building is clearly on view, including crisps and apples piled up in the canteen and the office of a suited executive with the misfortune to be located on the 15th floor. The Cheesegrater slips through a gap between the two, and a refreshingly-clear view of the Gherkin completes the northern wall.
The other quite-close tall building is the Walkie Talkie, the Fenchurch Street neighbour that once fried pavements, and the first City building to bring the skygarden concept to life. Its location leaves a fair swathe of west central London on view, stretching from a turret of the Palace of Westminster and half the London Eye, panning past the Thames at Waterloo Bridge, across the dome of St Paul's (if you stand in the right place) to the lowlier skyline around the Post Office Tower. It's good, but it's not outstanding. What you do get however is a proper close up of the Lloyds Building and its exterior pipes and metalwork, so that's a bonus (plus all the dishes and ventilation units on the roofs of mundane office blocks nobody's yet got round to redeveloping).
The view to the south would be brilliant were it not for the dodgy neo-gothic 1990s postmodernism of Minster Court slap bang in the middle. It is possible to spot City Hall and Tower Bridge to one side, and nothing hides the Shard, but being a couple of storeys higher would have made all the difference. On a clear day the best thing is the uninterrupted panorama across south London from Shooters Hill to the TV mast at Crystal Palace, then the row of hills beyond, and faintly the row of hills beyond that. East London, by contrast, is already disappearing behind various mundane towers, but Docklands stands proud in the background, and the Olympic Stadium can be seen poking out behind a dull block near Aldgate.
These days any lofty vantage point is an excuse for a bar or restaurant, and in this case D&D have taken over the floor immediately below. Their tables won't be opening until later in the Spring, at which point the garden will gain a more commercial feel, but you can already nip down and use the loos. In the meantime a lot of office workers are already using the upper floor as somewhere to bring their lunch, shovelling noodles with colleagues, just as if this were a proper park in the sky. In an age of increasingly private cityscape it's wonderfully reassuring to gain a new public space as yet devoid of miserably excessive regulation.
The one thing to watch out for is capacity, because the The Garden at 120 has a oddly-specific maximum permitted limit of 207 persons. Midweek in week one all was fine, but weekend opening could mean queues negating much of the joy of a turn-up-and-go attraction. The building's website has a Live Footfall Counter to help warn if your journey might be wasted, but be aware it doesn't always work (it was showing 0% while I was up there with a few dozen others). Access is daily from 10am, with weekend opening currently subject to a six week trial. Best come soon before it becomes too fixed a part of the tourist trail (queues for the nearby four year-old Skygarden are atrocious). But hurrah for a City project that's much better than it ought to be, and hopefully heralds a future chain of miniature public parks in the sky.