London from above: Dispatches from The Shard.

Shard Lead picture 2.jpg

Despite being open for over 5 years now, I’d never made it up The Shard. You don’t often get a chance to be a tourist in your own city, what with life and work getting in the way. However, it’s been on my must-visit list since it opened; mostly because you cannot travel anywhere in London without its looming presence casting a shadow over the city. The largest building in Western Europe and comfortably the largest building in London, it sat there just south of the Thames, piercing the skyline as a constant reminder that I hadn’t managed to go up and enjoy what were to be the best views I’d ever seen in London.

My girlfriend had made a dinner reservation at Hutong on the 33rd floor of the Shard and then a drinks reservation at the Gong bar on the 52nd floor for my 32nd birthday. Whenever I go abroad I always try to find a vantage point to see the city from above. One of my favourite aspects of visiting a new city is seeing it from up high. In the past couple of years I’ve climbed the Cathedral in Seville, The Westerkerk in Amsterdam and took the funicular up to the Vomero neighbourhood in Naples to be afforded an unforgettable view of the Gulf of Naples and Vesuvius. The pictures of these are on my Instagram. I also recently went up St. Pauls Cathedral but I’ll upload a dedicated post with pictures shortly. With this in mind she thought I’d enjoy seeing my favourite city from a dizzying new height.

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The tallest building in London: The Shard.

We dressed to the nines as we felt the occasion deserved it and we took an Uber from The Rookery, the hotel we were staying at. Once we cleared security the lift whisked us up 33 floors in a super-sonic 15 seconds and we were greeted by a quite staggering view of London. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen London from up high. I once climbed the 311 steps of The Monument but the views weren’t this impressive. London is a beautiful city. Sometimes I think the fact that there’s so much going on in London, that there’s such a wealth of things to do that its beauty is often overlooked, but up here its beauty is undeniable.

We were seated briskly and somebody came over to take our drinks order. The food then arrived in world record time as I was admiring the view from the toilets. Generally speaking, I tend not to loiter in the men’s toilets but I thought I had time to go after I’d ordered and the views completely stopped me in my tracks but I received a text to hurry back as the food was on the table. It took 20 minutes from arriving to having the food on the table.

The food is Northern Chinese fare with lots of Dim Sum and seafood options and we opted for a Hutong special, the Chinkiang pork ribs braised in a sweet vinegar sauce, the sautéed crispy shredded beef and the vegetable noodles. The ribs were cooked well with the meat falling from the bone, the crispy shredded beef was sufficiently crispy and the noodles were also good. The food was very nice and it was a step-up from your high street Chinese take-away but I’m not sure the food justifies the prices.

Everybody knows that you’re paying a premium for the view. I know that, you know that and the wait staff know that. I don’t even think the owners of the restaurant could tell you with a straight face that a plate of 6 spare ribs are good value at £29.50. The problem was, we didn’t have a great view of the city, not where we were seated. We could see the city but not as we could have if we’d had a window table as the glare and our fellow diners were obstructing the view. Our drinks reservation was fast approaching however, so we got the bill, paid and made our way back down and next door to the Shangri-La hotel to go back up to Gong.

This time we had to take two lifts. The first to the 32nd floor and then a second lift to the 52nd floor. The views were even more impressive this time around. At first we were seated at the bar and we had the same problem as in Hutong, only a glimpse of the views as the tables were occupied and the windows were obscured. I noticed that the door to the VIP section was left open though, so as I was dressed the part and reasoning that if questioned I could manage to convince them I belonged in the VIP section, I decided to sneak in and actually enjoy the views.

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Swimming pool in the VIP section.

After noticing the swimming pool, which was what my eyes were immediately drawn to, I saw for the first time the spectacular, unobstructed views of Westminster and beyond. I sat there for a good 5 minutes completely speechless. London is a big city but the scope and scale of London is only really something you can appreciate from this height. Not wanting to push my luck though, I decided I should probably go back to the other room before we were ejected from the building.

After I discretely returned to the other side, we finally managed to secure a table at the window. I was thrilled to be given a table overlooking Tower Bridge and East London, which is where I grew up. I have to give my girlfriend credit. She planned and executed this to perfection. The sky was a riot of pinks, yellows, dusky blues and finally black as the sun faded away on the horizon. I’m not often prone to hyperbole but the views here are unbeatable.

I sat there for a while picking out all the landmarks and iconic structures that I grew up with from a completely different perspective as the sky played out an unforgettable light show and the buildings began to twinkle as their lights were gradually being turned on. It was truly a memorable evening and an incredible way to celebrate a special occasion. My only criticism would be that the windows were in dire need of cleaning as they obscured some of the shots I took of this most incredible of skylines.

After a long day we  decided to call it an evening and made our way back down in the elevator where we descended so quickly that my ears popped! We took an iconic London black Taxi back to the hotel to turn in for the night. After an evening in the presence of London icons, both new and old, an Uber just didn’t seem appropriate.

I was incredibly grateful to be treated to this evening as a birthday gift and it was an unforgettable experience and one I hope isn’t once in a lifetime. I wouldn’t return to Hutong, I don’t think the food is good enough to warrant the prices charged but the food was nonetheless very nice. It was certainly a great experience and if you’re happy to take a chance on not having a window seat, they are assigned at random and you cannot reserve one, then the food, at least, will not disappoint.

The Gong cocktail bar on the other hand was a spectacular experience. The drinks menu was extensive. There was a selection of around 30 cocktails and there was wine, spirits, beers and naturally, champagne available. The drinks weren’t cheap with the cheapest cocktail running a £18 but here the prices seemed more justifiable.

If you pay attention to the time that the sun sets and book a table 30-45 minutes beforehand, it will give you the chance to join the waiting list for a window seat so that you can enjoy the most spectacular views of London available as the sky fades to black. I fear the pictures I’ve taken don’t do it justice but I’ll always have the memories.

Thanks for reading.

Terry.

Prices and Info:

Hutong Restaurant:

2 mains, a side dish, a bottle of water and 2 beers came to £108.

https://hutong.co.uk/experience

Gong Bar:

4 cocktails came to £80.

http://www.gong-shangri-la.com/bar/

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