From the 49th floor of The Shard, everything looks a little peculiar. It’s London laid before me, there’s no doubt about that. But, there’s something oddly unfamiliar about the city of my birth — as though nothing’s quite how, or where, I left it.
Down to my left, empty and illuminated, London Bridge looks flat and forgotten, like the unused deck of an ageing aircraft carrier. And to my right, sits a little Lego Tower of London, oddly dwarfed by HMS Belfast, docked opposite.
At this height, the city seems unendingly wide and impossibly cluttered, and amid this broad panorama certain things stand out; like Canary Wharf to the east, flashing in the night sky like a lighthouse; or the bright unblinking London Eye to the west.
Meanwhile, from across the river, a lofty trio of buildings stare back at me. There’s Tower 42, formerly the NatWest Tower, its shape often compared to the bank’s logo; to its right, the smooth curves of the Gherkin are as striking after dark as they are by day; while up front, the Walkie Talkie poses jauntily, like a dancing cartoon office block frozen in mid-bounce.
By the standards of Hong Kong or New York, London is low-rise, and the occasional unveiling of a cloud-piercing tower has always caused a stir. However, over the past decade, these additions have become more frequent, ambitious and newsworthy, each new structure subtly altering the skyline.
The most newsworthy of all, without doubt, is the one I can’t see: the Shard — at 1,016ft the tallest building in Europe outside of Moscow. And while its 74th-floor viewing platform sounds appealing, I’m content to be 25 storeys down, warm and unruffled, staring awe-struck from the window of the Shangri-La Hotel.
Staring at the city is very much encouraged here. Upon arrival, the blinds in my room raised themselves automatically, dramatically revealing the view, while on my desk were a pair of expensive-looking binoculars. I happily took the hint, and have spent the past hour poring over every visible inch of this curious city.
Spells, however, are made to be broken — this particular reverie by the call of Western Europe’s highest swimming pool. Having finally dragged myself away from the window, a few minutes later I’m swimming micro-lengths of the petite 52nd-floor pool, while enjoying a fresh angle on the city below. Then, later, in the GONG cocktail bar, I contemplate the logistics of creating a 52nd-floor pool, and marvel at humankind’s appetite for a challenge. And, as I sip something potent and tequila-based, I momentarily forget about the view, and instead observe my fellow guests, who all share an excitable, wide-eyed quality, no doubt still struck by the novelty of their surroundings.
The next morning, I cross London Bridge, now heaving with traffic, and meander hopefully through several alleyways, emerging, to my surprise, by the Monument. I’ve always been fond of the Monument. As a child growing up in the East End, the highlight of any trip west was always an ascent of its winding staircase, then a nervy circumnavigation of its viewing platform. But today I’m looking for something bigger, and I finally find it at the end of a narrow alleyway — 20 Fenchurch Street, also known as the Walkie Talkie, due to its unusual shape, or the Sky Garden, after the three-storey public garden that sits at its top.
After queuing briefly, I emerge from the lift onto a table-strewn plaza surrounded by plants, leading out to a broad balcony. But while there’s a tall, transparent barrier keeping everyone perfectly safe, this outdoor area is too much for my vertigo. Maybe its the sound of the wind, or the contact with the fresh air, but those nervous instincts I’d kept at bay over at the Shangri-La spring to life and cause my legs to buckle.
I dash back inside, just as it begins to rain, and admire the view from a cafe table. This time, gazing southwards, there’s only one point of focus — The Shard dominates the landscape, its fragmented tip conducting the gathering storm clouds.
I steal another glance at it as I make my way up a leafy staircase to the Darwin Brasserie, one the building’s five rooftop restaurants and bars. There I’m given a window-side table, and, over a rich tiramisu cocktail, I look out and am struck by the river.
As someone with a poor sense of direction, I suppose, I’d always subconsciously thought of the Thames as something of a straight line — and that all the landmarks along its banks were somehow laid out in neat rows. But now I see just what an erratic trail it blazes, snaking back and forth, scattering everything in its path.
Back in the clouds, a starter of braised ox cheek is followed by a plate of beautifully cooked venison. While I await dessert, I trace the river as it skirts around the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, and feel that only now do I really understand this city; its enormity, the way it functions and moves, and the manner in which those places I know so well interlink.
Dinner over, I bid the Sky Garden goodbye, head down to the street and instantly lose my bearings. But then down at ground level, everything feels suddenly so peculiar. It’s as if nothing is quite how, or where, I left it.
Published in Experiences 2017, published with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)