Conquering The Great Barnacle of Londinium

Growing up the the UK many of my peers will remember the GPO or Post Office Tower, which was glamourised in Christmas TV Specials and kids progs – not least in the Kitten Kong episode of the Goodies and Doctor Who. It was geeky and cool. Building began in 1961 and it was opened to the public in 1966 by Tony Benn, a long-standing hero of mine.

Situated in Fitzrovia, London, it’s used to house telecoms kit and transmit TV and radio microwave signals around the UK and a load of other important communications. It features a revolving top floor restaurant, which was a No1 London tourist attraction untill someone left a bomb in the men’s toilet in 1971, causing substantial damage and it has since been closed to the public except by special invitation to events and launches.

Last week, I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to a launch of BT/Football Foundation sponsored initiative to encourage kids to get involved in technology/media via sports. As this is a subject close to my heart and I’m working on a project in this field, I was very interested.

The Ghost Office Tower (what I’ve called it since I was little) is my favourite building in London and I’ve been fascinated with it for ever since I can remember, but have never been able to go up it for reasons stated above. So of course I RSVPed to the invite straight away, but remembered about a second after that I have really bad vertigo and an irrational, but very real fear of heights.

Hmm, so earlier this morning I coincidentally had an appt. in the next street to where the tower is situated, when it appeared in the landscape I eyed it carefully. My plan was to not think too much about the height, but the elation of achieving a lifelong dream visit to my favourite barnacled icon (I think it looks like an old barnacled razorfish shell).

In case nobody else noticed, today has so far been the hottest day of 2009 and as I sat working I was stewing on the decision, as well as the heat. I ummed and ahhed so much about going I was half an hour late, during which time I chatted to some friends on IRC & IM, who urged me to go – well I would definately be annoyed and kick myself if I didn’t go – so eventually frogmarched myself out into the blinding July sun and off down the road to Cleveland Street.

At 34 Maple Street (the swanky entrance) the security is tight, I had to show the lady on reception some photo ID, before she gave me a printed clip on badge. I was then ushered into a strange booth with a security man & woman who performed some airport stylee security checks – happily my piercing did not set off any alarms! A lady representative came and collected me and before I knew it I was taken to the lift – no backing out without extreme embaressment now!

Whilst waiting for the lift, we could hear the air being sucked up and making a whooshing sound as it travelled at very high speeds. I started to fret, but the nice BT lady started to tell me about the high tech facts about the lift, which genuinely pleased me. Apparently these are the only lifts that you can travel in if there’s a fire and BT got special Act of Parliament dispensation for this, they’re also some of the fastest lifts in Europe!

So in a very shy fashion I asked if I could take some photos of the etched steel image of the tower that lit up to show the lift’s progress, luckily the nice lady wasn’t fazed! Suddenly the lift was there and we got in, I took a couple of snaps and an automated announcement told us how fast we were going – it was very smooth and in about 30 seconds we were up at our destination on the 33rd (I think) floor.

Before I’d had chance to take more than a couple of snaps (okay, slow buffer on Canon G7) we had arrived and I was met with bright light and a waiter. I was given a cool drink and guided round the curve to where the speeches had begun (I was late). I was trying to listen but of course my vertigo was starting to kick in, I was sweating like a sweaty thing (nice), my legs were getting a bit sea-wobbly and I was worried I’d drop my drink – I swear I could feel the building swaying!

After several eons which was probably only 5-10 mins the speeches & demo were over. The BT/Football Foundation media literacy project sounded quite interesting and combining sport and making films/images to share a rather nice idea, so I was glad that I’d gone to hear about it. Anyway, I was considering how I’d make an exit demurely for my impending meeting back at Castle Greystoke when some introductions were in order to chat about the project, though I would have been happy to usually, I was feeling the collywobbles and felt like I could hardly string a sentence together. After a bit of coaxing, I did sit down and chat to a very nice lady who gave me an overview of the project and some reading material, I hope she didn’t notice the panic in my eyes 😉 After I had a chat with the organisers and came clean that I was having a bit of a tough time coping with vertigo, luckily they were quite sweet about it.

So, realising I had to leave for my 3pm meeting I tried to do a quick tour of the viewing area – it’s not big at all and as it’s circular you can walk round in a jiff. It’s also not very big in depth, so you can’t really get away or fail to notice where you are and up (IMHO) very high in the sky! I was amazed at everyone else’s nonchelance at being up in the sky, and that they were happy to perch right up against the windows and munch the pretty buffet.

I had a nice chat with a waiter, who I quizzed about the tower swaying and if he minded being up there – I’m intriuged how anyone can be up there for any length of time and not have a panic attack!

After making an attempt at a few unadventurous snaps, I decided I really had to leave and called the lift. After what seemed like eternity watching the LED floor numbers, it arrived and I was relieved, albeit sad to leave. I really wish I could have enjoyed it more, but alas I need more practice with heights if I’m going to overcome my vertigo hoohars.

So, incase you’re interested, some random facts:

* Height: 189 meters
* Designed to sway only 20-25 cm so as not to affect microwave signals
* No of visitors before closing to public in 1971 4, 632822
* The construction cost £2.5 million
* Opened to the public on 16 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Billy Butlin
* Its foundations are sunk down through 53 metres of London clay
* Tower still in use as a major UK communications hub
* Until the mid-1990s, the building was officially a secret & didn’t appear on maps
* Was given Grade II listed building status in 2003 & so several of the defunct antennae cannot be removed
* Entry is provided by two high-speed lifts which travel at 6 metres per second
* Is being used in a major study to help improve air quality in the capital
* Has appeared in many films and TV programmes




  1. Useful factoids I learned when I had the opportunity to go up there…
    The big round transmitter things on the side aren’t real. They wanted to remove them but by that time the building had been listed so they had to replace them with exact fibre-glass replicas!
    If you get over your vertigo, always remember to leave something up on the 33rd so you can get another trip in the lift and take some more photos… well it worked for me!

  2. Been up the Tower many times as I used to work at All Souls School and they were given an invite several times. But I’m old enough to remember it as a kid – loved straddling the other and inner circles of the restaurant and waiting for my legs to be drawn apart – yes I was a weird child.

    I’d love to go up again – amazing experience – it’s such a shame it has to be closed. That lift is soooo fast!

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