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A city day out

We spent Friday doing some touristing in the City of London, visiting things in our neck of the woods that we’ve never been to.

We started at the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie-Talkie, a building whose shape I find very pleasing in isolation but whose size and location I find overbearing and rude. I’ve also never understood its nickname; when I think of a walkie-talkie I think of a cuboid with an aerial, so for some time I assumed the Walkie-Talkie referred to Heron Tower.

Anyway. The building has a big viewing area on its top floor, for which pre-booked tickets are free. We were there at 10.15am on a Friday and it was pretty busy: a queue of tourists snaking around a small reception area and through the security gates and x-ray machines before waiting for one of the two lifts to the 35th floor.

When the Sky Garden opened I read articles that didn’t think much of the space itself and I wasn’t disappointed in my disappointment. For a large, high-ceilinged, light-filled space it feels surprisingly claustrophobic, and not only because of the number of people milling around. There’s too much there.

An atrium-like space filled with tables surrounded by glass and distant views over London
The bar/coffee shop and south-facing terrace

You emerge directly into the seating area for the bar/coffee shop, which you weave through towards a door to the open-air terrace, off to one side, avoiding the very long queue of people waiting for the lifts going down. There’s also a restaurant, and another bar, and lots of plants and trees, and big steps, and seating.

The views are, of course, good, although the glass everywhere means decent photos are difficult. I was tall enough to be able to hold my camera above the glass wall on the terrace:

The view south, showing The Shard and the River Thames
View from the south-facing terrace, over the glass wall

Some of the windows feature signs indicating what you can see in the view, but these are as accurate as some guy waving his arm vaguely in a direction without really looking:

A view towards Canary Wharf with a sign saying

Every few minutes someone would stop by this window, stare out, and say to their friend/wife/boyfriend/etc, “Where’s the stadium? I can’t see it.” Because, from this window, you can only see the stadium by standing to the right and looking around one of the building’s exterior fins. Meanwhile, there’s Canary Wharf nearly straight ahead. These signs could have been really useful and well-done.

So, great views, and it’s free, but I didn’t want to spend long there. On the other hand, down the road is a newer, also free (no booking required) rooftop viewing area, The Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street, which was a much nicer space.

It’s only 15 floors up but it’s just as interesting. You might not be able to see quite as far but you’re still above most of the buildings and are close enough to them to see more going on around you. Watching the men and machines slowly destroying this neighbouring building was quite absorbing:

Looking down on a large building whose demolished top-levels are full of rubble and machinery

There are still glass walls with their annoying reflections but this garden is open-air, much less busy, and just has less going on: no restaurant, no bar, no stairs, no queues. Which is nice, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit on a warm, sunny day. It feels more like a small urban park that happens to be quite high up, and I could imagine going there to sit and read or eat my sandwiches.

From there we walked to the London Mithraeum the remains of a Roman temple underneath Bloomberg’s new European headquarters, which is also free. We had a timed ticket but arrived an hour early and it wasn’t a problem (it also wasn’t busy at lunchtime on a Friday).

The staff are all friendly and helpful and give an introduction to the contemporary art that takes up most of the ground floor space, and show you how to use the tablets that are a guide to the wall displaying some of the artefacts discovered underground.

I could do without that art to be honest… I guess it’s supposed to “open a dialogue between past and present” or similar nonsense, but no one’s here to see it and I’d have preferred to see more of the thousands of excavated artefacts they have no room for, alongside printed descriptions — I quickly stopped using the clunky tablets because I realised I was spending more time using them to read stuff than I was looking at the objects themselves.

Down some stairs is a darkened space which is essentially a waiting area corralling people for the every-twenty-minutes access to the temple itself. Meanwhile you must listen to Joanna Lumley and some experts talking about the place.

On gaining access to the darkened temple space you first experience an experience (the recorded talking and chanting of an imagined group of men in the temple) before wandering around it. The mostly-missing walls are suggested by sheets of light:

A dark room with the remains of the temple walls and floor
The Temple of Mithras itself

It’s all very… clever? I supposed that in the recent past remains like this would have been shown in a well-lit space, perhaps with cases of artefacts and informational signs around the edges. The darkness and fancy walls of light somehow make it all seem less real, more abstract and Tron-like. It’s an interesting site but I felt a little distracted by the presentation.

After leaving there we walked past the church of St Stephen Walbrook which has never been open when I’ve been past before but this time it was, so we popped in. The current 17th century church was designed by Christopher Wren and the inside is quite amazing, given the unprepossessing frontage on Walbrook. It’s a big, bright, light space with modern wooden pews in a circle around a central altar that sits under a big dome.

I didn’t take any photos inside because I wasn’t sure if they were allowed and, like all right-thinking people (i.e. Askers), my motto is “Ask permission, not forgiveness”. But here’s a nice photo from Flickr:

A view of the dome, circular altar and pews surrounding it
By The National Churches Trust on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Well worth a look, and open in the middle of the day on weekdays. They also have free recitals at lunchtimes on Tuesdays and Fridays.

So, that was our nice, free day out in the City of London.

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