At the top of the skyscraper known as the 'Walkie-Talkie' are free gardens and an outdoor viewing platform to enjoy what is billed as the highest public garden and the highest free views in the capital city. A controversial building which is not the easiest place to get into, here we look at how to how to get free entrance and enjoy those views yourself.
The Walkie Talkie - or 20 Fenchurch Street, which is its correct name, should never really have been built. Multiple objections were voiced before its construction - the fact that it is so out of keeping with the area around it, the fact that it had always been planned that there should be no tall buildings in that area, the fact it ruins the view of Tower Bridge, the fact that it takes away public land and replaces it with private.
The land owners made all sorts of promises that the city planners were gullible enough to fall for, and the Walkie Talkie was built in 2014, although rather different to the design they had signed off on.
The predictions of the naysayers proved correct, and the steel monolith rises behind classic old London buildings, totally dominating the area.
A large, bulbous building with a small footprint which increases as it rises (more value in renting out top floor offices and apartments than those without views, after all), it has proved to cause damage to the area other than just its brash conspicuousness.
The curved shape meant that the sun's rays were reflected towards the ground, resulting in several fires, until sunshades were fitted. The shape also causes a wind tunnel in the immediate area, leaving pedestrians buffeted about and causing further damage.
Money talks though, and they managed to get planning permission by promising free, public space in the form of the Sky Garden on the 35th floor.
This was to be a 'public park' where Londoners and visitors could enjoy views over the city and the Thames, completely for free. Unlike most public parks however, there are no swings or slides, no grass to run around on, no benches to sit on (unless you pay for food and drink). This 'park' is a monument to what happens when you fall for developers' spiel, and there is nothing public about this place.
To start with, you have to book your visit here. You can either book to eat in one of the restaurants within the Sky Garden, or you can just book a visit. The restaurants are the money making arm of this 'free public space' and are inside the Sky Garden. They get some pretty awful reviews on Trip Advisor with painfully slow service and extravagant prices being the most common complaints.
Getting into the Sky Garden for free
If you want to go to the Sky Garden for free, as I did, you book your ticket online but it has to be within 3 weeks, and your booking only lasts an hour. The timeslots fill up so quickly that I had to try many times to get one which I could make. The arrival time on your ticket is your queuing time, not the time you get to stroll through the front door. Although when I visited I only queued for 10 minutes, apparently you can wait for about an hour, standing in the wind tunnel and without cover if it is raining.
You show your ticket to the bored looking security guard who really doesn't want to be dealing with the riff raff, and then queue again to go through airport style security, complete with removing your jewellery. You do get to enjoy watching all of the paying guests waltz on through special gates ahead of you though. There is then another queue for the lift. Packed closely with strangers, you zoom up to the 35th floor and emerge into the Sky Garden.
You will be expecting a garden. Don't.
There is some pleasant planting around the sides of the area, lots of low maintenance shrubbery and some palm trees, but the overwhelming impression you get is of a rather fancy airport terminal. There are sofas, tables and a bar, all packed with people, but it is the huge glass wall leading out onto the balcony which dominates the space. Walking awkwardly through the tables and trying not to trip over the people having a drink, most people head straight out onto the balcony.
The balcony spans the whole of the front of the building and does indeed have good views over the river and the city. You can see the Thames, the Shard, Tower Bridge, the tops of the buildings beneath you, and lots of other peoples' phones.
The Sky Garden claims to have 360 degree views. This is not quite how I would classify it.
You can walk back through the main section, up the stairs and into a large area at the back. This is not open to the elements and has a large wooden bench running along the glass wall. This wooden bench is covered in multiple signs telling you not to stand or sit on it - it would seem that they have used the pandemic as an excuse to stop people from getting their grubby fingerprints all over the glass wall, as the signs tell you that you can't stand or sit on the bench due to Covid. Why sitting on this bench will allow you to catch an illness when standing next to it won't, is unclear.
The 'garden' lines the stairs and is neatly packaged, very sanitised and firmly contained within its bounds. It is not a garden you sit in, walk through or take time to smell the roses.
I think many people's definition of garden is rather different to that of the developers, who would probably describe a window box as an 'open space filled with a wide variety of plants and humming with insect life'.
In fact it is very obvious that they want you to spend as little amount of time there as possible - unless you are paying to eat or drink, when you are allowed to sit down and take your time. Otherwise, there is nowhere to hang around. Some people were sitting on the stairs and getting in everyone's way, others were just milling around in the middle of all the people having a meal and a drink - uncomfortable for both parties.
You are left with little choice but to queue for the lift down.
Is it worth visiting the Sky Garden?
A visit here is free so value for money doesn't really come into it. If you don't mind queuing, being treated like a second class citizen and watching other people eat and drink, then maybe it is worth it, but I would not go out of my way to visit again. Maybe if I knew that I would be in the area and was able to book a spot at the right time, but otherwise there are far better places to go to get good views over the city. Try the Crossrail Roof Garden for a free garden, no booking required and lots of mature trees.
To everyone who imagines that a sunset visit will be amazing, bear in mind that they close the balcony at 6pm, so you will only see the sunset through heads and glass.
Visiting the Sky Garden
Nearest tube station: Monument