The Millennium Dome, that controversial architectural marquee that ushered in the 21st century, defined the Greenwich Peninsula in London at that time. It was built to house the so-called “millennium experience”, and opened is doors like some futuristic wigwam on the very last day of the century. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was then the ninth largest structure in the world by useable volume.
In the twenty years that have passed, it has been labelled a financial flop and, eventually lost its identity on the altar of consumerism, adopted by the cellular telephone company as the O2 Arena. It soon found its metier as a legendary rock theatre and shopping mall. The steep outer dome also became an attraction in itself: London’s answer to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Here, suitably shackled, one can indulge in a bit of tame mountaineering. I even found myself trekking across the vast expanse of domery as the direct result of a pre-Covid birthday present from my wife, Liz.
Built for Leap Years
The dome isn’t truly a dome, but rather a large circus-style big top, supported by twelve bright yellow pillars. The pillars have meaning too; they count as one for each month of the year and every point of a clock face. The structure is 52 metres high, counting a metre for every week in a year, and its circumference at its base is 365 metres or one metre for every day of the year. I have no idea what happens in a leap year and assume it grows a metre to accommodate the change. This also leaves me with a sense of irony as the millennium year itself was a leaper, and thus had 366 days in to keep us happy.
The “Up at the O2” experience, is a climb to the viewing platform mounted above the dome. It’s accessed by a walkway which ascends from near the main entrance and descends on the far side by the James Bond sliding section, a nod those who can recall Pierce Brosnan’s stunt slide down the dome into the River Thames. This millennium stunt fails to take into account the 40 or 50 metres of concrete between the back of the dome and the river. In today’s ‘elf n’ safety-conscious world that seems a little odd and, almost, tempting providence. Apparently, the stuntman (no, it wasn’t Broz, of course) who performed for the scene was the last person to slide down the dome. Sensibly, it is now not allowed and I certainly wasn’t about to try it.
Liz bought me this wonderful experience as we have spent many happy hours at the O2 Arena over the last year or so, visiting in concerts by Take That, Hugh Jackman, Michael Bublé, McFly and others. In fact, a week before lockdown we attended the last night of Boe and Ball in the arena. It thus became our last night out this year.
We now have a stack of other concerts and theatre shows, booked for this year, and now sorted with temporary dates for 2021. Provided, of course, that we are allowed back in to socialise.
When you get the opportunity to do something as challenging as the O2 climb, thoughts turn to recording the event. What camera to take? In this instance, the choice was really taken out of my hands. Since you can carry only one phone or a compact camera, I had to make a difficult choice. Neither of my cameras, the Nikon Df or the Leica X (typ 113) can be described as compact. And I didn’t fancy launching either of them into a simulation of Bond’s slide. So I reluctantly concluded that this would have to be an iPhone-only experience.
In the end, this turned out to be a good choice.
Because of Covid restrictions, current O2 climbs are limited to groups of ten, instead of the usual 30. This was perfect for me because it offered a more intimate personal experience, rather that the feeling of being on a mass outing. I imagine the roof platform would be extremely cramped with all those people and an instructor vying for the best views.
It’s obligatory to wear the O2’s fairly fetching climbing footwear. But the rest is up to you, although the instructions do exhort everyone to wear “sensible clothing”.
In addition to the trendsetting footwear, you get to wear a rather funky harness, with a large metal safety device attached to it. Gents, the several kilos of device seems to hang perfectly for a rather swift swing in to the nether regions, so care needs to be taken when you are unhooked from the safety walkways and strolling around, more so if you have future plans.
You climb or bounce up the side of the dome, on a blue rubber walkway that looks like a conveyor belt, to the top. You have to be hooked up to the safety wire which you cannot detach yourself when either going up, or coming down.
The first stretch is about thirty degrees, and it is not really arduous as it lasts only a few minutes. This is the steepest bit, and from there on it is a steady, gentle stroll up to the roof platform. Trust me, once you have done the first initial bit, the rest is easy going and actually enjoyable. If, however, you are averse to heights, then I accept this may not be a trip you wish to take.
I found being at the back and leaning out on the safety rig gave me the confidence. I was going nowhere in a hurry, other than in the direction of the wire. The instructors are allowed only four climbs per day, and ours was candid in saying his previous climb of the day had been to carry up replacement Champagne and water for those who had ordered a drink at the top. I was driving to and from home, so sadly opted out of the Champagne experience.
The views of London are spectacular from the top of the O2. You can see all the way down to the Greenwich Observatory, over the Isle of Dogs (or, as it is now, the Canary Wharf financial district). Unfortunately, half of the view of the City of London is obscured by the high buildings in the financial district. You can however see over towards the Excel stadium, and have some cracking views of the bends in the River Thames. It is possible to make out the City of London airport, and the water sports parks too. There are options to climb at the time of day where you hope to see the views at their best, and sunset and twilight climbs are available. I did a sunset climb, where the sunset got obscured by the pending doom of a storm cloud that thankfully didn’t reach us during our time on the roof.
I found the iPhone 11 camera to be pretty handy, even in the diminishing light at the end of the day. A night panorama, after the climb when darkness had set in, holds up really well. This surprised me, as lowlight work on smartphones has not always been a major selling point. Clearly it shows where Apple has put some of its efforts since my previous model, the iPhone 7 Plus which I retired in March this year. Of course, the 11 doesn’t have the same lowlight space as my Nikon Df, but then this has always been an exceptional lowlight camera.
Now I have more confidence in using the iPhone as an only available camera, I believe it wouldn’t convert me from the feel of a real camera in my hand. I love using either the X or Df, but at least now I can see the attraction of these genuinely portable powerhouses. I did feel that some of the shots were a bit on the dark side and rather flat, but this was easily corrected in post processing.
If you happen to be in the area, then I would recommend the Up at the O2 experience, even if you don’t do it for the photography. It’s just wonderfully freeing. Nevertheless, it could be an entirely different experience in the rain, or the wind, or when the temperatures plummet. In those circumstances, I can see it being an interesting adventure in its own right.