The Walkie Talkie’s Sky Garden

When I went on an architectural tour of the Gherkin, architect Spencer de Grey spoke about how very few buildings really make use of their roofs for anything other than the mechanical things necessary to make the building work properly but the novelty nicknamed buildings – the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, seek to do just that. However, access is another question. In the case of the Shard, their top floors have been monetised through the creation of The View from the Shard, charging tourists and Londoners somewhere in the region of £20 a time to see London from the Sky. The Gherkin on the other hand limits its use to private members or functions only. The Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie (aka 20 Fenchurch Street) sits somewhere between the two.

I booked tickets and a few weeks ago went along to visit the Sky Garden myself. At ground level, upon entry to the building, tickets must be presented together with photo ID in order to gain admission. I’m not sure I understand the requirement for photo ID to be honest, I mean, what does it prove? That I am who I say I am? How does that allow for a more secure building? Unless they’ve done some sort of terrorist check on me from the booking details (you are required to give the names of those who will be visiting), in which case it makes me wonder how on earth the time and effort in doing so for maybe hundreds of visitors each day makes it worth it. Once past a bag check and metal detector (slightly more understandable), you enter a shiny lift which whisks you up to the top floor. You step out from an unremarkable lift space into the light atrium and immediately the space and beauty of the lines and light hits you. It’s all glossy and new, gorgeous shiny floors, clean lines and the late afternoon winter sun coolly lighting the space.

Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street

I hadn’t booked to eat in any of the three food spaces – the Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill, Darwin Brasserie or Sky Pod Bar – so I was simply there to enjoy the space. The restaurants occupy the centre of the building and rise up, staggered on three different levels in the cavernous space. Alongside these run green spaces of plants and trees which are flanked by staircases leading up to the back of the roof area.

Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street

I took a quick walk around, enjoying the glimpses of some of London’s gems, like the dome of St Paul’s, rising out of the wintery haze. But it was as I wandered around the Sky Garden that I started to become aware of its limitations and my initial awe at the space faded somewhat.

View from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch StreetView from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street St Paul's Cathedral

The appeal of roof space in such a prime central spot in the city must be the fantastic 360 degree view of London moving around from the Shard to the London Eye, St Paul’s, the BT Tower, the Gherkin, Canary Wharf, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and back to the Shard again. The problem is that whilst all of these buildings can be seen from the Walkie-Talkie, the lines of the building and the design of the space create few clear sight lines that aren’t hindered by either metal poles and struts or reflections.

View from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Canary Wharf

This flaw is felt most keenly at the back of the Sky Garden which is an under-utilised large expanse with what could be a fantastic view over the Cheese Grater and Gherkin save for the fact that a long wooden bench runs along the back and prevents a floor to ceiling view, together with a horizontal bar which, for anyone that isn’t 6ft tall (ie. 5ft 5″ me) sits right at eye level and cuts across the view, disrupting its impact.

View from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Gherkin Cheesegrater

A long lens or camera held very close to the glass windows mean that it’s just about possible to eliminate problems with a clear view in photos but it was something I definitely felt quite keenly as I walked around.

View from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Gherkin Cheesegrater View from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Tower BridgeView from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street

As for the garden for which the space is named, it feels less like a garden and more like two manicured borders. Although I’m sure that the logistics of getting trees up to the 35th floor of a building are interesting, the ‘garden’ felt like a decorative accent – a way to fill what would otherwise be a soulless metal and glass void. Although there are inlets into the garden with some seating, there is no way to stroll through it or feel like you become part of it.

And don’t think that you might be able to enjoy the garden as a garden. With a prohibition on bringing in food or drink, this is definitely not the sort of place you can picnic and sit and enjoy the views or generally do anything you might expect to do in a public park.

Interestingly, the Londonist has computer generated images of how it was supposed to look (ie. much like a park) and how it ended up looking. The initial vision seems to have been compromised by the restaurant element.

Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street

Although the plants clearly need some time to bed in and really take root, it can at least be said that  at times the flora elements do provide a wonderful frame for the city.

Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Canary WharfWalkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch StreetView from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch StreetView from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street View from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street

Despite the fact that I visited on an unseasonably mild and calm February afternoon, the terrace which looks out over the Shard was disappointingly closed off, leaving me even further from the view to the South.

As the sun dipped lower I sat for a while overlooking the Sky Pod Bar and watched the tourists and realised that it reminded me of a cruise ship lobby. Shiny and sparkly, with tinkly jazz playing from speakers ‘hidden’ in the shrubs. There’s a kind of sterility to the place which made me feel uneasy in its glossy tranquility.

Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street Sky PodView from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street sunsetView from Walkie Talkie Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street sunset

The ‘public’ nature of the Sky Garden was apparently a condition of the grant of the planning permission and it feels like it. The space feels designed for private events, where getting close to the view is not the priority. Allowing the public to visit, with three days’ notice, after undergoing security checks and with restrictions on what can and cannot be brought into the building means that the Sky Garden feels like a conciliatory nod to the public access requirement, rather than a genuine embrace of its enviable position within the city.

Would I recommend visiting? Yes, but only because it’s free.

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  • Ah your pictures are lovely! I found it impossible to take any, at night the reflections are so terrible. But I did like the view. We had wine and nibbles at the bar which was nice and I would be keen to try the restaurants. Definitely a bargain way of seeing London! x

    Jasmin Charlotte | UK Lifestyle Blog

  • This is such an interesting review – I’ve booked to go to breakfast next week because it doesn’t look too expensive, so I’m interested to see what I think! Either way, your pictures are great!

    Bxx
    http://www.b-jolly.co.uk

  • This is such a great review – my boyfriend is an architecture buff and I’m thinking going up here would be a fab birthday idea 🙂 Your pictures are stunning too 🙂
    http://www.thesnugblog.com
    x

  • Really good review – I would like to pop up to have a look around, but, as you said, only because it is free. It’s a shame you have to book so far in advanced to go up there. I work close to the Walkie Talkie and it would be a nice lunch break spot – but I’m not that organised with them!

    Petite Pomme

  • I’ve read similar from other people – it’s a shame that such a good opportunity seems a bit flat. I’ve booked to go at the end of the month (like you say, FREE), but not booked a restaurant – can anyone tell me if it’s possible to just get a table for a coffee once up there?

  • Your photos make it a lot more appealing than your review does. Last time I was in London we were going to do the Eye but were turned off by how touristy it was and how they cram so many people into the pods. It’s hard to find a city/sky view that doesn’t feel manufactured for hoards of tourists. I will keep this on the list for next time I’m in London, because like you said – it’s free!

    http://www.dallasisd.org/Page/27323#sthash.bbs4g00r.dpuf Silly Medley: Lifestyle and Travel

    http://www.dallasisd.org/Page/27323#sthash.bbs4g00r.dpuf

  • Awwwwwww no what a shame! I was excited about the idea of this but did think it’d be more of a garden … what a waste!
    Chloe x
    newgirlintoon.co.uk

  • Great review and amazing photos – I am going to book this for a friend’s birthday!

  • Thank you for such a thorough and honest review – I can see what you mean about the architectural design blocking the views. As you say, it’s probably still worth a try just because it’s free – good to go with realistic expectations though! x

  • Oh how frustrating. You did managed to get beautiful pictures, the space is so interesting. They probably ask you for ID as they will run you through security to check that you are not going to pose a problem, especially you are given next to some central and very important buildings. I will still probably give it a go but really appreciate your honesty Lucy x

  • I’m sad to hear that the Sky Garden didn’t live up to expectations (or even its initial design). It’s such a fantastic idea, and the fact that the end result is somewhat sterile and poorly designed makes me fear for the planned Garden Bridge. Luckily your eye means you got some lovely shots of City architecture framed by foliage, but it’s such a shame that the Sky Garden flouts most of the characteristics you’d expect of a public park – spontaneity and freedom included! But as you say, at least it’s free. I’ll probably go and have a look later in the summer when the plants have settled in a bit…x

  • The reflections were still a problem during the day for me as the sun was so low, but zooming in around them just about eliminated them. I bet London’s beautiful at night though (even with the reflections) It is a free alternative to somewhere like the Shard though, so one for tourists on a budget.

  • Do let me know what you think about the Sky Garden and breakfast. I’d be interested to know or read anything you post about it.

  • Thank you. I’m sure your boyfriend would enjoy it if he’s into architecture. I can see the logic behind the building (ie. that high up space with a view commands a price premium) but I can’t fall in love with its shape at all.

  • I work close to the Walkie Talkie too and had hoped it might be a nice lunch spot but no food allowed and the need to book in advance means it’s to be.

  • I hope you enjoy it. It should be possible to get a cup of coffee up there, although you may end up sat at the bar. There are plenty of places to perch though.

  • I think it’s an alternative to the Shard if you don’t want to pay to go up there, but I must admit that I did prefer the Shard and the views from up there were pretty spectacular. I haven’t been on the Eye in years though!

  • I know, it’s such a shame it changed from its original design as that looked much better and more like a garden.

  • I am a bit concerned about the Garden Bridge now, I love the idea but I do fear it will be quite sterile and corporate.

  • Carolin

    Thank you so much for your review and for sharing your exceptional photography with us! I love the second picture in particular! I went to Sky Gardens in May and I liked the atmosphere and the fact it is for free. Like you, I found the architecture a bit restrictive but the place is still so full of perfect lightening. It felt more like an exclusive venue for events rather than a garden.

    Caz | Style Lingua

  • Andrew Fletcher

    I saw this blog. This is really fantastic. I have gotten some valuable information from here that will be very helpful for me. Thank you so much for sharing your great analysis. Some times ago i had visited eliteradios.com and also i have gotten some great walkie talkie info from there.

  • I recently went to the Sky Garden for the first time myself a couple of weeks ago. I agree that because it’s free it really has the appeal for tourists & locals – I guess their restaurants, bars and cafe make that money for them for it’s a lovely way to pass the time staring at the beautiful London views which you’ve captured so well. Brilliant photos!

    Alina | DIY home blogger UK