Tag Archives: Greenwich

Up at the O2

Londoners love to go up stuff. We like to be able to stand high above the city and look over its vastness, as far as the eye can see, and point at buildings we recognise. The viewing platform comes in many guises these days and it is something that has become peculiar to city life. No one seems to build these in the middle of the countryside where arguably there are lots of beautiful things to look at – this is presumably because any suggestion of building in green places tends to result in the locals brandishing pitchforks; if you want to see views in the country, you go up a hill.

Nonetheless, city dwellers love standing hundreds of feet above ground and looking down at the cars, train stations and densely packed buildings in order to feel part of it all. You can go up the Shard, up St Paul’s, up the London eye, up the unpronounceable Orbit-thingy at the Olympic Park, and increasingly up to roof-top gardens and events across the city. Now, you can also go up the Millennium Dome. And yes, I know it’s called the O2 these days but another thing Londoners do is to call things by their original or ‘quirky’ name no matter how many times it’s rebranded (see also Olympic Park – no offence to HRH but who is going to remember the Queen Elizabeth bit?).

The first person to go up the Millennium Dome was actually James Bond when he accidentally fell on it, and there are references on the website cautioning you against a repeat of this iconic moment. The excellent pre-title sequence of The World is Not Enough in 1999 sees Pierce Brosnan’s Bond chase some baddies down the Thames in a boat before he ends up falling off a hot air balloon and bouncing down the side of the dome. It’s a great film opener and also a great film if you pretend Denise Richards wasn’t in it – “I’m a nuclear physicist”, yeah course you are love.

Anyway I digress. Your journey begins at base camp – yes I know but go with it – where you are shown a safety video and how to use your kit.  This includes a lovely sleeveless jacket, a safety harness which wraps around your shoulders and legs, and a special pair of hiking style boots designed to maintain grip on the bouncy walkway. This is still quite a new activity so the shoes are in good condition, don’t worry it’s not like going bowling. Once you’re fully rigged up, the instructor / guide checks everything and you climb the steps to the base of the roof, where you stop for a quick promotional photo (available later in the shop).

It’s like abseiling, so you’re attached by a pulley-like contraption on your safety harness to a line which runs to the top of the dome, 52 meters above ground, and one-by-one you begin your ascent. It’s step-free but the initial angle is quite steep, although as you climb higher the gradient is reduced until it flattens out completely at the Summit. The climb itself isn’t too bad, and certainly far less strenuous than the steps to the top of St Paul’s, taking around 20 minutes depending on the group’s ability. You may find the bouncy walk-way a little disconcerting at first but it doesn’t move as much as you might fear.

Once at the top, you’re given 15-20 minutes to look around and take photos – cameras and phones are the only items allowed with you, anything else is left in the locker-room. From the top you can see close by to the naval college in Greenwich, across to Canary Wharf and down to the Thames Barrier, as well as getting the Bond-eye-view over the top of the Dome itself. Then you begin the descent down the other side of the Dome, which some may find a little steeper, but here’s where the shoes come into their own with their helpful grip to keep you slip-free until you reach the bottom. All the way along the instructor is beside you ready to help if needed or point out particular landmarks, but otherwise leaves you to get on with it, which is great and certainly increases your sense of achievement.

Unlike most of London’s other viewing platforms, this one is completely outdoors from beginning to end which makes it a much more interesting experience. The whole process from checking-in to packing up your kit on the other side is smoothly managed and you never feel even remotely unsafe. It’s also really fun and certainly feels more of an accomplishment than getting the lifts in the Shard. So as one of the more unique experiences, I would definitely recommend climbing the Millennium Dome to survey our fair city from yet another angle. It may not make you James Bond but as Londoners (or visitors to London) it is our duty to go up as much stuff as we can – do it, you know you want to!

Up at the O2 costs £26 on a weekday and £33 at weekends and all equipment is supplied. Restrictions on climbers do apply and is not suitable for anyone under 10 years old, shorter than 1.2 meters or weighing more than 21 stone. Twilight climbs are also available.


Historic Greenwich

I went on a primary school trip to the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and I remember thinking it was amazing. Either my 10-year old self was completely deluded or something has gone very wrong in the meantime. I intended to see their Visions of the Universe exhibition showcasing the history of solar system imagery which their publicity implies is pretty much the best exhibition ever seen. It was broken! So I thought I’d look round the rest of the museum instead – and what a disappointment. Apparently, the whole history of Britain’s seafaring heritage can be distilled into the Atlantic Slave Trade, East India Company, Nelson and the Battle of the Atlantic. Even within these galleries, which have some fantastic objects, the brief information gives a stilted picture of their history. The Traders gallery, for example, has simplified 250 years of British interaction with India and China so that you bounce between pepper, cloth, tea and opium trading, through the India Rebellion and Opium Wars leaving you slightly breathless and with no better understanding of the complex and altering effects this had on the nations involved. As often with museums now, there’s no overarching chronology that shows you how Britain’s maritime history evolved from the seeding of the Royal Navy under Henry VIII to its role in the modern armoury. Where is the sense of naval innovation and development – including the crucial movement from sail to steam; where are the multiple roles of the Royal Navy as fighting force, transporter of goods and men, scientific explorers and pioneers, and where are the distinctions between different elements of naval warfare including submarines, seaplanes and decoy boats such as Q-ships? There’s not even anything dedicated to life on-board naval vessels – the social and cultural history of sailors which is still quite poorly understood. The NMM needs a rethink and to takes lessons from its own past –  I definitely learned more on that School trip than I did all these years later.

There’s so much to do in Greenwich, however, that it needn’t be a wasted journey. The Painted Hall is part of the Old Royal Naval College (in front of the NMM) and was built as a hospital dining room for naval veterans. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and painted over almost 20 years by Sir James Thornhill, it was eventually thought to grand for the patients and opened to the public instead. Celebrating the glories of British naval power, it really is a spectacular place incorporating members of the contemporary royal family, with Christian imagery and Greek mythological symbols, as well sections celebrating the (then) four continents of the world. Much like the Reuben’s ceiling in the Banqueting House on Whitehall, this is a remarkable artwork and an interesting piece of propaganda on naval history.

The Queen’s House next door to the NMM is most famous for the often photographed spiral staircase and chequered marble floor, but it also holds one of the most interesting collections of paintings in London. Largely it contains naval portraitures, battles and seascapes, with a few royal figures as well, by everyone from Holbein to Lowry. The house itself, designed by Inigo Jones, was commissioned for James I’s wife, Queen Anne but first lived in by her daughter-in-law Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. It was also the first classically designed building in England and is a quiet refuge after the bustle of the NMM. In fact skip the more famous NMM, Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory, and visit these two places instead – both free and far more enlightening.

The Painted Hall and the Queen’s House are open daily from 10am-5pm and are free to enter.

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