Loved and loathed by Londoners over the years since its construction in the mid-Sixties, the column-like BT Tower, despite growing competition, remains a dominant feature of the city’s skyline.

The tallest building in Britain at the time of its official opening in 1965, the 189 metre tall structure (including a 12 metre tall mast) was commissioned by the General Post Office to support microwave aerials which carried communications from London to the rest of the UK.

Designed by a team led by architect GR Yeats under the direction of Eric Bedford, chief architect of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, its narrow, tubular shape was engineering to reduce wind resistance and ensure stability.

Construction of the tower started in June, 1961, and some 13,000 tonnes of steel and 4,600 square metres of specially treated glass were used in building the £2.5 million tower.

Along with the aerials capable of handling up to 150,000 simultaneous telephone calls and 40 TV channels, the tower also housed 16 floors of technical and power equipment, as well as other floors with offices and even a revolving restaurant on the 34th floor (it made one revolution every 22 minutes).

PM Harold Wilson did the honours of officially declaring the tower open on 8th October, 1965. Queen Elizabeth II’s first visit would come on 17th May, 1966, just two days before then Postmaster General Tony Benn opened the tower’s public areas – an observation gallery and a 34th floor cocktail bar and restaurant, called Top of the Tower, which was managed by Butlins. More than 50,000 visited the observation gallery in the first three weeks after its opening.

A bomb exploded in the men’s toilets on the 31st floor – the location of the viewing gallery – in October, 1971, and took two years to repair. Despite this – no-one has apparently ever claimed responsibility for the bombing, public areas continued to remain open until the restaurant closed in 1980 and access to the observation gallery ceased in 1981 (although the restaurant is still used for corporate and charity events).

Originally known as the Post Office Tower, the tower has had many other official names since it was built including the Museum Tower, the London Telecom Tower and the BT Tower while staff suggestions at the time it was being constructed included the Pointer, Spindle, Liaiser and Telebeacon. Interestingly, the tower was apparently designated an official secret when built and didn’t appear on Ordnance Survey maps until after MP Kate Hoey, following on from other members who had “given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret”, told Parliament of its address – 60 Cleveland Street – in February, 1993.

The now Grade II-listed tower, which is located just off Tottenham Court Road in Fitzrovia, remained the tallest building in London until it was overtaken by the NatWest Tower in 1980. The last of its famous satellite dishes were removed in 2011.

Its wrap-around LED light display, officially called the Information Band, went live in 2009. It has since carried special messages on occasions like Remembrance Day and Valentine’s Day as well as an Olympic countdown and even the first ever tweet sent by the Queen (a message to mark the opening of the BT-sponsored ‘Information Age’ communications gallery at the Science Museum in 2014).

The tower has featured numerous times in literature and film, the latter including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

PICTURES: Top – BT Tower with Wembley in the background (Robert Speirs, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Right – View of BT Tower from The Monument (Dun.can, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

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We kick off a new series this week looking at 10 of most memorable (and historic) views of London and to kick it off, we’re looking at the views from one of London’s most prominent historic institutions, St Paul’s Cathedral.

There are two external galleries at St Paul’s – the first is the Stone Gallery which stands at 173 feet (53.4 metres) above ground level. Encircling the dome, it is reached, via a route which takes the visitor through the internal Whispering Gallery, upon climbing some 378 steps.

Located above it, encircling the cathedral’s famous lantern (which sits on top of the dome), is the Golden Gallery. It stands some 280 ft (85.4 metres) above the cathedral floor, and can be reached by a climb of 528 steps.

From it – and the Stone Gallery below it – can be seen panoramic views of the City of London and across the Thames to Southwark.

The lantern above, meanwhile, weighs some 850 tonnes and on its top sits a golden ball and cross – the current ball and cross, which weigh about seven tonnes, were put there in 1821, replacing the original ball and cross which had been erected in 1708.

St Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building in London from 1710 into the 1960s (when it was surpassed by Millbank Tower and what is now known as the BT Tower). Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s is not as tall as the original medieval cathedral which reportedly had a spire reaching 489 feet (149 metres) into the sky compared to St Paul’s as it is now, standing to a height of some 365 feet (111.3 metres) above ground level.

WHERE: St Paul’s Cathedral, St Paul’s Churchyard (nearest tube station is St Paul’s); WHEN: The galleries are open from 9.30am to 4.15pm, Monday to Saturday; COST: £18 an adult/£16 concessions and students/£8 a child (6-18 years)/£44 a family of four; WEBSITE: www.stpauls.co.uk

PICTURES: Top – Looking up at the lantern with the Golden Gallery around the base; Below – View looking west from St Paul’s down Fleet Street (the spires of St Brides and St Dunstan-in-the-West can be seen).

BT_Tower-1This West End district, located between Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Soho, probably owes its name to the Fitzroy Tavern, a public house which in turn is believed to owe its name to the Dukes of Grafton, whose family name was Fitzroy.

The Fitzroys (the name derives from  a Norman-French phrase and was typically associated with base-born royal sons), owned land in the area until the end of the 1800s.

The family first become associated with the area after the Manor of Tottenham (more on that name in an upcoming post) came into the possession of Henry Fitzroy, an illegitimate son of King Charles II who became the Earl of Euston and later Duke of Grafton.

Incidentally, the grand Fitzroy Square, developed by the duke’s grandson, and Fitzroy Street are both also named after the family as are numerous other locations in the area including Grafton Street.

Fashionable as a residential area in the 1700s, the houses were gradually transformed into workshops – the area was noted for furniture-makers in particular – or cheap tenements and it’s during this period in the early 1800s that artists like John Constable were living in the area.

The name Fitzrovia apparently became popularised for the district which in the inter-war years, due to the community of artists and writers that met at the pub; it is said to have first appeared in print in the 1940s. Among those who were associated with the area during this period were the likes of writers Dylan Thomas and George Orwell and artists like Roger Fry and Augustus John.

More recently the area has become home to numerous media companies, particularly TV-related companies, and still hosts ample pubs, restaurants and cafes.

Notable buildings in the area include the BT Tower, a communications tower completed in 1964 which was until 1980, the tallest building not only in London but in the UK (and from where panoramic views could once be had – sadly it’s been long closed to the public).

Fitzrovia is also home to the quirky Pollock’s Toy Museum.

PICTURE: David Castor (caster)/Wikipedia

Around London…

September 9, 2010

• It’s only a week to go until the annual Open House London event. Held on the 18th and 19th September, Open House London is your chance to get inside all manner of buildings – from private homes through to grand edifices – which are often normally closed to the public. Be warned, however, that some buildings, such as the BT Tower (open for the first time) require bookings to be made. These close 15th September, so you’ll have to be quick. The free event, which has run for 18 years, also includes neighbourhood walks, cycle tours and talks. For more information on the event, to purchase the guide (an electronic copy can be downloaded for £3.50) or to find out how to book, head to www.openhouselondon.org.uk.

Looking for a weekend out of the city? English Heritage’s Heritage Open Days program – which doesn’t cover London – runs from today until Sunday and grants free access to properties around the country which are either normally closed to the public or usually charge admission fees. The program includes buildings ranging from medieval castles and Georgian townhouses through to World War II cemeteries and 21st century eco-homes. Among the properties within easy reach of daytrippers from London are Waverley Abbey in Fareham, Surrey – founded in 1128, it was the first in England housing Cistercian monks; an historic ‘net shop’ in Hastings, East Sussex; the Battle of Britain command centre at Bentley Priory in Stanmore, Hertfordshire (see picture of the entrance hall above); and, the new Aardman Animation headquarters in Bristol, home to the creators of Wallace and Gromit. Some places require prebooking so check before heading off. For more information, see www.heritageopendays.org.uk.

• The headless skeleton of a rare North Atlantic right whale recently found in the Thames has gone on display at the Museum of London Docklands. The seven metre long, half tonne skeleton was unearthed at Bay Wharf Greenwich by archaeologists and is believed to be the largest single object ever found at an archaeological dig in the city. The skeleton is only on display in the museum’s foyer until 14th September when it goes to the Natural History Museum. Entry is free. For more information, see www.museumindocklands.org.uk.