Sunday, November 07, 2010

London Open House: Post Office Tower

Several weeks ago we again took part in the fantastic London Open House weekend. When I say taking part, I mean wandering around and gawking shamelessly at buildings we'd normally be thrown out of. It's architectural voyeurism, and I love it.

Hannah and I were very lucky to win places to go up the Post Office Tower, an iconic London landmark that has been closed to the public for 3 decades. We didn't realise just quite how lucky until we got there and they revealed 30,000 people had applied and only 470 were successful. This, of course, enhances my deserved reputation as a jammy fucking bastard. Hunting around youtube I see that in fact many sundry nerds and charitable celebs have got to go up it but it was still better than definitively not winning 133 million pounds, one of my less jammy recent moments.

My first exposure to the Tower was the fabulously silly Goodies episode 'Kitten Kong', in which it is destroyed by the titular feline. Other than this admittedly memorable image, I hadn't seen anything about the tower before moving to London. In fact, despite being a skyline icon (skylicon?) and navigational aid for Londoners, it seems relatively unknown outside the city, at least when compared to such universally recognised buildings as Tower Bridge, 'Big Ben' and the London Eye. Not sure why this is. I'd love to say it's because it was covered by the Official Secrets Act and thus not officially acknowledged to exist. It actually was, but the fact nearly 5 million people had visited it by 1971 seems to indicate it was a fairly poorly kept secret. In 1993, MP Kate Hoey tongue-in-cheekily revealed in parliament that the nation's capital had been hiding a 621 foot tower since the sixties.

The tower was conceived in the 1950s when broadband microwave technology seemed the best way serve the growing communication needs of the nation. It was designed to exchange microwave radio signals with other similar towers in locations such as Birmingham, Bristol and Portsmouth. Built in a yard off an existing telephone exchange, it was quite a neat engineering feat. A borehole survey revealed the hard chalk suitable for supporting foundations was 53 metres down, too far to be practically used. Instead a 27 metre square concrete 'raft' was placed some 8 metres below street level, supporting a seven metre tall flat topped concrete pyramid, which in turn supported a hollow concrete shaft that forms the core of the tower. Even in 160 km/h winds it will not sway more than 19cm. Swaying ain't good for microwave transmission.

The completed tower was promoted as a symbol of Britain's bright techno-future and featured a wonderfully naff revolving restaurant, run by none other than Butlins! There's some spectacular sub-Mad-Men promo pics floating around the internet. It was meant to be the height of sophistication in the swinging sixties, but one gets a feeling it's not the kind of place John would have met Yoko.

The tower was bombed by the IRA on 31st October 1971 (just 11 days before Kitten Kong aired for the first time, if Wikipedia is to be believed!). It was eventually closed completely to the public in 1981 after the restaurant lease ran out in 1980, and has remained closed ever since. Rumours emerged last year that the restaurant may reopen but nothing has happened yet - one wonders if this opening was part of a trial run.

Our visit was graciously hosted by BT, who clearly viewed the whole exercise as good PR. They appear to have a dedicated team for their events in the tower, and after a full airport-style security checked we were whisked to the 34th floor and given the full treatment with tea and cakes. Most exciting for me was that we happened to arrive just as a Spitfire and a Hurricane flew across the skyline as part of 70th anniversary commemorations of the Blitz. Jammy. Fucking. Bastard.

Oh, and the view? Pretty bloody fantastic.

1 comment:

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