Keeping An Eye On London

The nay sayers said it would never get off the ground, but the London Eye has become one of the world’s top tourist attractions.

By Joanna Hall (Photography by Ben Hall)


Sitting in the back of a black cab, I’m trying not to look at the meter as we head from Heathrow into London - a quick currency conversion puts the damage already at just over one hundred dollars and there’s still a way to go.

I try to take my mind off the luminescent red number that keeps ticking ever higher with a bit of conversation with the driver who’s obviously from the East End, or sounds like it at least.

It had been five years since I was in London, having spent 10 years there as an expat-local, so I ask the 'geezer' about any changes.

After a 10 minute rant about politics (London cab drivers’ favourite topic after football), he tells us he’s actually doing quite okay himself and it’s mostly thanks to what he calls 'The Wheel'.

"It’s not just the foreign tourists who are crawling all over it, neither - I’m doing jobs from the domestic airports as well and they all want to go there," he says. "Can’t get enough of it, and it’s good for business - it’s brilliant."

The cabbies may be cashing in, but it wasn’t that long ago that town planners and architects labelled it as "rubbish" and an "eyesore".

Its proper name is the London Eye, and throughout the 1990’s debate raged in London about the appropriateness, and tastefulness, of the whole concept which was originally called the Millennium Wheel.

At one stage, part of it even crashed into the Thames River - during construction in 1999 which meant it failed to open at the turn of the millennium as planned.

At the time, the many critics who adopted the "told-you-so" attitude predicted the London Eye would become a giant white elephant. They couldn’t have foreseen its future success.

Five years after it finally cranked into action, it’s attracting three and a half million visitors a year and has won 40 tourism awards - and more surprisingly it’s won the hearts of cynical Londoners.

At 135 metres, it dominates the cityscape from the South Bank of the Thames River and it’s now being compared to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Statue of Liberty in New York as a world renowned landmark.

With just two days to visit the city where I’d 'grown up', my plans were to hit the ground running and take in as much of the London I’d actually missed out on when I was a local.

For the first time I was seeing the city in a totally fresh light - not as a jaded 12-hour a day worker bee, but as a 'tourist'.

And on the advice of Clive the cabbie and other Londoners I made the London Eye the first stop of a go-hard itinerary to become oriented with its sightseeing delights.

The London Eye’s panoramic command of the city offers a totally different perspective on the British capital.

Instead of emerging periodically from the Underground system and seeing London as separate jigsaw pieces removed from each other, this is the way you get the whole puzzle.

It’s a 360 degree introduction, or reintroduction, to the city and despite its grand scale it does confirm that most of London can be walked without missing too many of the postcard destinations.

The actual price of the 'flight' - as it’s called - is a little off-putting at 12.50(Great Britain Pounds) or $AU30 each for just the one rotation and I’m a little sceptical after parting with my cash.

There’s also a proliferation of kitschy souvenir stands which have sprung up in the shadow of the London Eye, and it increases the faint feeling that I’ve been suckered.

The queue is long, but attendants keep it moving at a regular pace - the Eye itself moves at just under 2 km/h and only stops for disabled access so on this day it only takes a couple of minutes before I’m stepping inside the glass and steel capsule.

Each of the 32 capsules holds up to 25 people, but the attendants seem to be ushering about half that number in which means there is plenty of room inside.

As the capsule lifts slowly away from the entry platform, the sheer scale of the engineering audacity of the Eye becomes evident.

It does look like a giant ferris wheel, except that capsules are fully enclosed and is supported by a massive steel frame on one side only.

The 80 'spokes' of the London Eye use a total of six kilometres of cable and there’s more than 1700 tonnes of steel in the structure.

As we rise above the Thames River the first view takes in the eastern end of London including St Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the City or financial district and Canary Wharf.

At the top of the 135 metre arc, the view becomes a 360 degree panorama and on a clear day (a rarity in London) it’s reportedly possible to see for 40km as far as Windsor Castle.

On the downward arc the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben take centre stage, along with the West End theatre district, Buckingham Palace, The Oval Cricket Ground, The Imperial War Museum, the Tate Gallery and Lambeth Palace.

The Eye made it all seem much more accessible than I previously imagined and it made me realise how little of the city I had actually seen, despite nearly a decade of residence.

Believe it or not, there are born-and-bred Londoners who’ve never been anywhere near Buckingham Palace, never mind the Tate Gallery, yet each year millions of people from around the world crawl over the British capital.

They head there for the sheer grandeur of a city that symbolises the might and power of a bygone era, where every few blocks yield yet another world famous landmark accompanied by yet another must-do photo opportunity.

After the 30 minute ride, I step off onto the platform at ground level with a greater appreciation of what London has to offer - determined to make up for lost time and “do” as many of the tourist spots as physically possible inside 48 hours.

SEVEN THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT THE LONDON EYE

  • It’s the world’s largest observation wheel at 135m
  • It weighs 1900 tonnes in total, including 1700 tonnes of steel.
  • It took six years to build and involved 1700 people from 5 European countries.
  • It travels at 0.3 metres a second and takes 30 minutes to complete a rotation.
  • It takes 800 passengers per revolution - 15,000 a day or 3.5 million per year. More than 18 million people have 'flown' the Eye since it opened.
  • Each of the 32 capsules is 8m x 4m and weighs 10 tonnes.
  • Although the Eye is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest observation wheel in the world, it may not hold that honour for long - plans have been announced for a 170m wheel in Las Vegas and a 200m one in Shanghai.


    FACT FILE

    Gulf Air flies daily from Sydney to London via Singapore and Bahrain. Visit www.gulfair.com. au. Virgin Blue connects to Sydney from most Australian cities. Visit www.virginblue.com.au, or call 13 67 89.

    The City Inn Westminster is a convenient location for exploring London, and experiencing the London Eye. For more information visit www.cityinn.com/london.

    For more information on the London Eye and London, visit www.londoneye.com, and www.visitlondon.com.

    For the best in luxury travel, visit www.ultimatetravel.net.au






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