Forget The View from the Shard: it’s all about The View from 20 Fenchurch Street. The Sky Garden is London’s highest public garden – and with a non-existent entry price, it’s a verifiable hidden gem for travellers on a budget in the heart of the capital.
At the end of February, we saw Jamie xx at Alexandra Palace . . . and since we were already in London, we decided we may as well spend the next day exploring! With some forward-thinking (and a huge dollop of luck) we managed to get return tickets from Leeds-London for just £10 each, courtesy of an incredible post-Christmas sale run by Virgin Trains. We stayed at Keystone House Hostel – barely fifty metres away from King’s Cross Station, it was ideally located for the overground/underground journey to Alexandra Palace, and was reasonably priced.
After leaving the hostel, we wandered along Euston Road – taking a peek in the British Library’s courtyard en route – and eventually stumbled upon a café for breakfast. Located on Tottenham Court Road, Kamps has a delicious-looking array of baked goods (including all sorts of pretzels, pastries and breads), all of which you can see being made as you eat.
A short tube journey later, we emerged at Bank and ventured towards 20 Fenchurch Street. For the benefit of potential future visitors, the nearest tube station is actually Monument, but Bank is linked to Monument via a (seemingly interminable) underground passageway – so either works just fine. Arriving at 20 Fenchurch Street with our printed-out tickets for the 11.15am tour and some ID, we joined the speedily-moving queue for airport-esque security; soon we were whizzing up to the building’s 35th floor.
Entering the Sky Garden is a little surreal: for an attraction in the heart of London, the distinct lack of crowds is rather odd. However, the crowd-less atmosphere makes the whole experience immeasurably more enjoyable, as there is plenty of space to wander and relax once at the top. Being huge fans of panoramic aerial views, we immediately made a beeline for the open-air terrace . . .
Despite the overcast weather, the views from the balcony were fantastic: the Shard dominated the skyline to the south; Tower Bridge and the Tower of London took centre-stage to the east, whilst Canary Wharf could be seen in the distance; and to the west the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral peeked out from behind dozens of cranes.
Looking for a reprieve from the relentless chilly breeze, we headed inside to explore the three floors of horticultural wonder. Stepping back inside, the atrium was light, tranquil and spacious: an ideal respite from the throngs of crowds on the streets below.
Venturing further up, we passed numerous terraces, filled with exotic Mediterranean and South African ferns and flowers. The Bird of Paradise (strelitzia reginae) flower with its vivid orange petals looked absolutely stunning . . .
From the northern side of the building, we could see London’s financial district in all its glory – and my personal favourite building, The Gherkin (technically 30 St Mary’s Axe, but The Gherkin is infinitely more fitting). Recently, London has really taken to referring to buildings as kitchen objects, so I present: The Cucumber (still under construction), The Cheese-grater and The Gherkin. I rest my case.
All in all, the Sky Garden was a fantastic place to while away a couple of hours – and since it’s absolutely free, it’s left me wondering why anyone would pay to go up the neighbouring Shard.
After leaving the Sky Garden and grabbing a bite to eat, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon, albeit only a few hours, in Camden. Emerging from the train station we were hit by a wave of crowds (something unavoidable that I nevertheless dislike about London) and were quickly swept along the pavement towards Camden Lock. En route, we passed one of the best busking scenes: picture a table cluttered with assorted china and trinkets, add the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit to the scene and a bunch of tourists queuing up for photos and you’ll get an idea of the hilarity of the situation. (If you’re struggling, Google Images will help: Alice in Wonderland, Camden appears to be a well-documented phenomenon).
Camden Lock is a magpie’s paradise: the place is overflowing with all sorts of trinkets, baubles and curios. The stalls themselves are teeming with mementos: prints; vintage cameras; intricate lamps; henna; jewellery; clothes. Whilst London has many large-scale markets, Camden Lock is on another level: it’s a labyrinth, and the further in you go the harder it becomes to find the way out!
As a creative and cultural haven, Camden Lock is well worth a visit; it’s a chance to discover an area of London where the independent shop reigns supreme over the commercial chain. Plus, if you’re yet to make it to Brick Lane, the Cereal Killer Café has opened its second branch here, complete with a VHS-adorned shop front. With over a hundred different retro cereals to choose from, it’s every cereal-lover’s idea of heaven.
Leaving the bustling streets of Camden behind, we crossed the picturesque Regent’s Canal and wandered back to King’s Cross (all in the name of adding a few more steps to that pedometer reading). À la prochaine, London.