Looking Down On London



As the planning applications go in for over 200 new buildings of over 20 storeys each, 75% of which will be aimed at rich overseas buyers, there’s a campaign mounting to stop London’s skyline from being ruined. The buildings are being approved without any public debate or consultation. There’s no oversight and vision from the city’s leaders, and the get-rich-quick towers do not answer the city’s housing needs, but respond to a bubble of international investment.

Westminster’s UNESCO World Heritage status is now threatened by the towers, which are of mediocre architectural quality and badly sited. Many show no consideration for scale and setting, make no contribution to public realm or street-level experience and are designed without concern for their effect and impact. This is what’s happening right now under London’s bumbling Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson.

London has always been a low-level city without an ‘Old Quarter’. In the 1980s Canary Wharf in the East End was specifically designed to become the new financial district on cleared waste ground, much of which had suffered war damage. The new building boom is not driven by business but by overseas buyers looking to hide money in safe havens.

One of the city’s unique features has been the ability for residents to see the river because of low-level waterside development. Now the Thames is fast becoming a corridor of concrete. Buildings like The Shard, which looks acceptable from five miles away, appear monolithic and inhospitable at their bases.

But does anyone care about a view?

When I was growing up, the sight lines of the Tower of London were protected. The Tower is low-set, because London rose around it, and Tower Green preserved a unique view in that no tall building could be seen from it – so what you saw from within was essentially the same as what had been seen in the time of Henry VIII. That view was lost in the 1980’s when the blank glass box Tower 42 (oh, the romance of that name) split the sky above the green.

Of course London cannot be preserved in aspic, but no zones for tall buildings have been established and sites are simply being sold off. Two such sites are in my neighbourhood. Both have very low buildings on them. Both have now been sold for skyscrapers.

Where To Look Down On London Without Going To The Shard

1. Primrose Hill/ Hampstead Heath

They’re free, they’re open-air, and both have spectacular views

2. The Heights – St George’s Hotel

Oddly overlooked, and right next to the BBC, this 1970’s throwback hotel has a butt-ugly bar with an amazing view across the West End, and the most disorganised service you’ll find outside of Cornwall. Go now before they finish refurbishing it into a boutique hotel.

3. The National Gallery

It feels like you’re sitting backstage in London here, seeing the rear of Nelson’s Column and the tops of buildings you don’t normally spot.

4. Tate Modern

Their top floor gallery is free and has superb views of the river and St Paul’s Cathedral.

5. Paramount at Centre Point

Its London views are every bit as good as the Shard’s and it’s more central, even though you have to climb over the rubble around Crossrail to reach it. No longer a members’ bar, it’s reasonably priced for the view, unless you book a table on the narrow viewing platform above.

6. The Monument

If you’re prepared to brave those stairs – and it’s not a climb for claustrophobes – you’ll be rewarded with an excellent view of the city, from the place where the Great Fire began.

7. Blackfriars Station

For the price of a tube ticket you can stand on the station with the best view of the Thames. It’s not high but you get the sweeping panorama of the city from either platform

8. General Wolfe’s Statue

Near the Observatory in Greenwich Park you’ll find this pioneer of Canada overlooking the city from a South-Eastern viewpoint – still spectacular and free.

9. Alexandra Palace

Ally Pally is a historic venue in Alexandra Park located between Muswell Hill and Wood Green. It’s awkward to get to, which keeps away the crowds, and has great views.

10. Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Hill in unlovely Lewisham is said to be the point from which Wellington’s victory at Waterloo was signalled to London in 1823, and has great views across the city.

8 comments on “Looking Down On London”

  1. Jo W says:

    The view from Greenwich park is still the best.

  2. Matt says:

    Reading this reminds me of those days out my Father used to take us on. He would take every friday off in the summer holidays and we would venture into London on the Tube. The Monument was my favorite. I also Loved Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill.

    I know what you mean about the reckless land grabing that is going on. London has to evolve though and if Millions of people want to invest then let them…. NOT. Its is a sign of the times Money Greed. Its that all powerful god that runs the world. To hell with the look and feel of a place. The old London so many come to see has long gone.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    My youngest granddaughter likes to use the word “random” and that’s what London’s skyline is beginning to seem to be. A strong doze of urban planning would seem in order as sightlines are all important or you’ll soon be plagued with a Manhattan’s and its urban roar. I briefly visited London in January 1963 and again in October 1968. I’m not sure I’d like to visit again. All the thousands of pages of books I’ve read describing London through the ages, all the films and old TV shows, all overlaid with this new “long tall Sally” of a London. It doesn’t really appeal.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There’s lots of good stuff in London, Dan, and the views listed above are good ones, several of which we experienced 3 years ago and several more we’ll find in May, *however* I would like to comment on General Wolfe – he who would rather have written Gray’s Elegy. It’s a great statue although it has shell damage from (I assume) the second war. We had to ask a couple to move a bit so we could photograph the installation. The general, who died on the Plains of Abraham, Quebec, in 1759, was *not* a Canadian pioneer. He was a more than competent English general who would have returned to England after a post war spell of governing Quebec if he hadn’t died during the battle. (He may even have been shot by a traitor, according to a re-enactment I’ve seen. They had a collateral descendant of Wolfe’s there.) The French general, Montcalm, outlived him by only a day or so and we seem to have mislaid his burial site, although we’re working on it. Wolfe’s body was packed in lead and shipped back to the family home in England.

  5. Joel Kosminsky says:

    The future domination of London by towers is something to be feared and resisted. Of course we need to house the people without whom London would just disintegrate, but few bar the ‘rich’ (a generic term, not necessarily a political diatribe) can afford these places. ‘Style’ has been lost – the ‘Gherkin’ has some enjoyable quirkiness but is ipartly-concealed, so it can’t be appreciated. The ‘Cheesegrater’, the ‘Walkie Talkie’ and the ‘Shard’ are different purely for the sake of being different. ‘Tower 42’ ain’t bad – it’s a City-scale building with a rhythm of its own. Even the previously-unloved ‘Centrepoint’ grows on you after a while. But ‘200’ (give or take) more towers will create the dystopian London we all fear. They will swamp the London I love and the metropolis you love too. A few more towers, yes, but hundreds, no!

  6. Vivienne says:

    I don’t think in the short term it will stop. It’s like that story about incoming prime ministers being take to a small cupboard and shown The Truth, like a Head of Baphomet or something. After that the new man is unable to do anything. The truth is I think just a balance sheet: the City keeps us afloat – upset them at your peril! We seem to be heading for a JG Ballard world – all new skyscrapers in a climate changed world. Just to be optimistic!

  7. jan says:

    Telegraph hill in Lewisham is part of a great chain of hills across southern England which were pressed into service at the time of Napoleon to signal the state of play in the Napoleonic wars and also to signal news of any possible invasion by the French forces. In fact (I dunno this one way or the other) the chain of Telegraph hills may also have extended to the North ………..

  8. jan says:

    I know this is drifting off the subject somewhat but The National Gallery has a great view of the top of the Mall block house that mysterious structure near Admiralty arch which was built during WW2 for the last ditch defence of London. Now the blockhouse is weathered and covered with ivy and its presence or function is rarely questioned. Look at it from above (the Nat Gallery canteen being a good spot) and the strength of this structure really comes home. The roof is certainly not ivy covered it is clean flat and ready to be used. Just as a little pointer as to its continuing importance the late Michael Winner (wotever ur opinion of the man he did some good with this) campaigned for a long time for a site to be found in central London to commemorate police officers who died in the course of their work and finally he was allowed to site the memorial near the Blockhouse as it shielded the view of an air vent/ air pipe which serves the structure. I don’t know how true it is but at one time there were rumours that an underground railway linked the Admiralty block with the underground archives site just off TCR. This link could in fact have been through the Northern line at Trafalgar Square/Charing X In fact there are a numbers of these defensive structures throughout London Belsize Park being one, Clapham and Stockwell being others. The northern line being the link. In fact I think the Clapham or Stockwell underground bunker is now being used for growing herbs and the herbs grown at the site will actually be advertised as being grown in London in an underground bunker!!

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