Thursday, 7 April 2011

Inside BT Tower

For many Londoners, the BT Tower is one of our most frustrating landmarks. Originally housing a revolving restaurant, it has been firmly closed to the public for years. When a rare opportunity arose to get inside, I leapt at the chance. (And leapt into the lift, although many people took the stairs instead.)

The tower looms over Fitzrovia, standing 620 feet high if you include the aerials at the top (which makes it all the stranger that it was an official secret until the 1990s!). It was first known as the Post Office Tower when completed in 1965, but has gone through regular rebranding: London Telecom Tower and British Telecom Tower followed, with BT Tower just the latest in this series of names.

Its primary purpose was to transmit high-frequency radio waves - the first such purpose-built tower - but it was a popular tourist attraction as well. As well as the restaurant, there were viewing galleries and a gift shop. That all began to seem more risky in 1971 when a bomb exploded in the men's toilets. It was not until 1980, though, that the restaurant lease expired and it was closed. All public access ended in 1981; recent plans to reopen the restaurant seem to have quietly faded away.

It was very exciting, then, to actually get inside one of the two lifts and ascend at 1400 feet a minute to the top of the tower. A clear, sunny day meant views right across London. Inside, the space is now used for corporate events and is rather more contemporary in style than the exterior - and very round! Even the toilets on the floor above are arranged like spokes around the centre. Getting to them meant that I took a few steps up the very narrow spiral staircase - it was easy to understand why the lifts are also needed for fire evacuation,* and to sympathise with those who had climbed the tower on foot.

*Using lifts when there's a fire is of course not usually allowed, so Parliament gave special permission.

There are more photos on flickr. For photos of the restaurant, and a specimen menu, click here.


Alan Burkitt-Gray said...

One of the perks of being a telecoms journalist, as I am, is that BT occasionally invites me to events up at the top of the tower. Last year I was at a meeting, with lunch, about cloud computing as we span around on a cloudless day.

I suspect they will never reopen it as a restaurant. Apart from its use to BT as a corporate venue, there are other issues. Last time I was there, the tower was not rotating while lunch was being served - because of health and safety issues, they said.

As a bit of technology, it's pretty much obsolete, now. In the early 1960s microwave towers were used to carry long-distance phone calls. Now optical fibres carry more calls, more reliably, and data too.

M@ said...

It was a great experience. Did you get to meet Ellen?

I'm guessing from the angle of the shadow in the top picture that you must have been there around 11am? London's biggest sundial!

CarolineLD said...

Alan, what a brilliant perk - I'm very envious of the rotating lunch!

Matt, I didn't meet Ellen but did see her. It was indeed 11am!

Anonymous said...

I worked with a chap, years ago, who was a scaffolder when the tower was built. He was blown out of an unglazed window near the top - but luckily there were nets installed for such an eventuality!

CarolineLD said...

Lucky - but absolutely terrifying!

Adam said...

Amazing - I'd love to visit one day. It's a shame that the interiors are not 60s vintage though!

Deptford dame said...

Great pics, must have been a fascinating trip. I went up some years ago when it was being refurbished, it was a windy day and you could feel the tower swaying.

CarolineLD said...

DD, the tower was very still yesterday - one benefit of the lovely weather!

It would be great to see what it looked like in its restaurant heyday, time for an image search.

CarolineLD said...

Wonderful - I've just found this site which not only has pictures of the restaurant, but also shows a sample menu.

Mike said...

I ate there back in '74 or '75. Somehow I'd stretched my student grant enough to take my girlfriend there. It was a a wonderful experience, slightly tarnished by the fact that the restaurant was run by Butlins, as the site you link to notes !! Good to to my memory's still correct on that.

Andrew said...

Blown out of a window? Absolutely terrifying. Nets of not I would have died of fright!

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