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A trek over London’s massive O2 Arena with just an iPhone for company

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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.

Let's Climb: Abandon hope, all ye who enter this lift...
Let’s Climb: Abandon hope, all ye who enter this lift…

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.

Chute for the brave...
Chute for the brave…

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.

Choose your time of day. I went for sunset and was rewarded by some memorable sights. In the backgroun, the fincial district of Canary Wharf
Choose your time of day. I went for sunset and was rewarded by some memorable sights. In the backgroun, the fincial district of Canary Wharf

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.

Aftermath: That dome doesn’t look all that big when viewed from the plaza. But it’s misleading. Getting up top is a definite achievement

Postponed pleasures

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.

Tarry a while at the summit and grab a few panoramic shots
Tarry a while at the summit and grab a few panoramic shots

Non-minglesome groups

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.

Recording the occasion
Recording the occasion

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.

Champagne reception

Veni vidi vici...
Veni vidi vici…

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.

Portable powerhouse

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.

The Canara Wharf ferry terminal. You get a good idea of the height of the dome from this perspective
The Canara Wharf ferry terminal. You get a good idea of the height of the dome from this perspective

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.

It's easy when you know how... this shot of the trekkers on their way to the top was taken by Mike Evans during the test of the little Leica C-Lux—with the zoom lens at full chat, 360mm...
It’s easy when you know how… this shot of the trekkers on their way to the top was taken by Mike Evans during the test of the little Leica C-Lux—with the zoom lens at full chat, 360mm…

Read more articles by Dave Seargeant

25 COMMENTS

  1. A most entertaining article with nice images that you pulled out of your iphone. I don’t know if it’s a 28mm equivalent but from what I see it must not be too far from it. I like those hues of autumn and winter sunsets with crisp colours and particularly like the second and third images. I bought a smartphone last summer but always manage to put my finger on the lens when shooting so I guess I’m on a safer side with one of my GRs.
    Thanks for sharing and stay safe.

    • Interesting point about the lens, Jean. The iPhone and, as far as I know, other smartphones, employ a 28mm-equivalent focal length. I suspect people are now so used to this perspective that it is becoming the new norm. It may account for the popularity of, say, the Ricoh and the Leica Q when more traditional users would have preferred 35mm or, even, the old “standard” 50mm.

    • Good Evening Jean,

      I agree until I did this I had never relied solely on my Phone as a photographic companion. My only wish is that they allow people to take camera’s up to the roof, at present you are not allowed, unless it fits in your pocket.

      Best wishes

      Dave

        • Ha ha ha. Now that is funny. Not a good time to talk to the boss about buying more tech. My Macbook pro has been playing up, so far I’ve replaced the Drive, next up is the trackpad, if that fails then I will try the battery – after that I might end up replacing it. But I will have only spent a small amount on all those parts, and I have self fitted the drive, the trackpad is easy, as is the battery. So see what comes, I might need a new Macbook. 🙁

  2. Dave, your enjoyable article brought back memories of the day our camera club did the climb a couple of years back. Unfortunately it was blowing a gale and pouring with rain, which meant that we had to wear the suppled, very bulky full storm kit. We were allowed to take full sized cameras and tripods, but they were of little use as it was so bad on the platform. Nobody got any shots.
    Going up was fine but the descent was rather precarious and very, very slippery.
    A great experience nevertheless, and one that I would be keen to repeat on a fine day.

    • Yes it is certainly worth the effort, although no big camera’s are allowed up. I am unsure if that is a covid requirement, or something that just is. I know they were very wary of us dropping our phones over the edge of the roof top platform, and pointed out there is no way of getting them back.

      I would recommend having a go again, and pray for better weather. I assume going as a camera club is why they let you up with your gear, and it would be good to see images captured on something greater than the sum of my IPhones parts.

      Best wishes

      Dave

      • The daughter of one of our club members worked on the management team and negotiated a free trip over for us (two parties!) on the basis that we were trialing a possible extension of their normal trips to include those specifically aimed at camera clubs. I have no idea if it ever happened.

        • I doubt I could manage it with an iPhone Nein my pocket, never mind a SL2 ans 24-90 zoom slung over my shoulder. Far to energetic and dangerous for me…

        • See I would love to take my Df up there, and take a few shots. I am not convinced that using a tripod and doing long exposures would be useful, as the platform is a little bouncy. So would present a unique challenge for long exposure work. But I would love to see images taken on a decent camera from there.

          Dave

  3. A very nice photo of the chute Dave and you’ve wetted my appetite for a walk up there one day. Point noted about the shackle; best to be warned. And if I go I’ll put the X1 in a trouser pocket, it should be compact enough I suppose. Thanks for the entertaining read.

    • It is worth it, and not onerously expensive. Going up during the covid era is quite pleasant as the groups are the third of a normal size. So at least you get a journey with a personal touch.

      If you have the time do it, and naturally watch out for the swing of the shackle. 🙂

  4. Well done, Dave. Not for me and my Menieres I’m afraid, not even strapped onto that steel rope and I would need a neck strap on my mobile phone. A phone is all you need in order to show your auntie in Australia where you are. This reminds me of a video of the back climb on Half Dome in Yosemite, not that I have done that. Look for ‘Half Dome Hike – Yosemite National Park’ on You Tube. I won’t risk posting another link here.

    William

    • Thank you William.

      I am now curious as to what the half dome hike is, so will do some research when time allows.

      I am sorry to hear you suffer with Menieres, as that will make doing this sadly more or less impossible, so I am glad I can show you the view from the roof. 🙂

      Dave

  5. First question why? Second question you sober? Third question did your wife take out extra life insurance on you? You had a great time and looks like great stress relief. Loved the photos and glad you lived to share. What next climbing and rappelling Eiffel Tower?

    • 1 – why not? 🙂
      2 – Yep totally – I had to drive there 🙁
      3 – I will ask. Perhaps that would explain her eagerness to see me go and do it. 🙂

      Thank you John, it was fun, a very different experience. Who knows what next, knowing me anything, base jumping, skydiving, or just plain old coastal walks. Covid has totally knackered all of my holidays, and my walking in the lakes one has just been skewered, and moved to next year.

      Hopefully I will come up with something.

      Dave

  6. Cool climb and that third photo is very nice. Not being familiar with the actual contours of the arena I had to look it up. The iPhone coupled with Google’s Street View app would allow you to capture a 360 deg view of the dome.

    • Thank you Farhiz, I wish I had known that before I went up, I would have tried it for a chuckle. Not sure what the results would have been like.

      Dave

  7. Hello Dave.
    Thought provoking. The iPhone 11 certainly does produce image detail in low light. But what do you think of the colours? My daughter also uses an iphone 11, and catches some stunning images. She tells me that it’s all the camera she wants or needs.

    Amazing to think how the quality of smartphone cameras has evolved over the last decade. And, considering Moore’s Law, there will be another quantum leap in the next five years. It’s evident why Leica decided to make a significant move into computational imaging when they announced restructuring last year.

    • Can you imagine a Leica smartphone with 1 inch or better MFT sensor coupled with an elmarit 28mm equivalent with built-in ND filter and the ability to shoot raw (a bit like the Panasonic that was produced some 5 years ago)?

    • I can only compare it to my previous IPhones, so the 6, and the 7. I view the 11 as being the best one so far, and I am told the Pro models are even better. If I am honest I would have loved to have taken the Df up on the dome, I reckon I could have pulled some really unique images. But the phone did enough, and I would if pushed do the same again.

      I suspect within a few generations of smartphone they may start to chew at the heels of some of the bigger camera’s. That would be the next quantum leap. There is for me, just a nagging doubt that if you are serious about your images though, that a real camera will still take some beating. Also those of us with so much gear will keep them alive.

      Keep Safe, Down Under, and I hope JS is okay.

      Dave

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