All Along the Watchtower

All Along the Watchtower

Words Kirk Truman

Photography Adedotun Adesanya

“This is very much an operational BT building, but we try to create as many opportunities for people to visit as possible. The tower is intrinsic to the operation of the United Kingdom, some of the things that go on here have implications for the country as a whole.”

Under the veil of some hissing rain, I saw you standing there. Under the mist and the wet, you stood announcing yourself to the bodies below, mighty above the chimney tops, the square and some stony Mews. ‘But what is it?’ I thought: some wondrous thing unknown to the people who allow themselves to become so busy below. The years have gone by and I’ve heard, through and through, the words ‘Post Office tower’ by summer under the burning sun, the words ‘Telecom tower’ by winter under drifting snows. The pinnacle of British Telecommunications rises right here in the Fitzrovia neighbourhood, finally the mysteries mounting amongst us all along the watchtower I seek to answer.

I recall as a teenager, using the tower as a beacon point to help find my way home after last orders in pubs all over the city. Every Londoner has their relationship with the tower. Over the years, I’ve heard reference in anything, from local gallery owner, Rebecca Hossack, referring to it as the maypole of the village, forward through to watching the 1966 ‘War Machines’ Doctor Who episodes which centre around the square and tower.

On the site of the BT Tower there had long stood a transmitter; running temporary cables between cameras at Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace and the BBC’s only transmitter at Alexandria Palace. In 1937, BT made history transmitting King George VI’s coronation live to homes throughout the UK. This broadcast was made from a much shorter steel lattice tower on the same site as the current. Soon after the coronation of the king, microwave radio technology replaced cable transmissions. Today, BT makes transmissions through fibre-optic technology where each able is made of plastic, or glass, and is thinner than human hair.

The erection of the BT tower was delayed considerably by World War II. It was only after having been commissioned by the General Post Office that construction of the tower began in June 1961. Due to its height, its foundations sink down through 53 metres of soft London clay, formed of a concrete raft measuring 27 metres square and reinforced with six layers of steel cables. On top of this sits a reinforced concrete pyramid. Throughout the vast majority of the construction a tower crane jib sat atop the tower. The crane itself raised questions in parliament at the time, with Doctor Reginald Bennett MP asking the Minister of Public Building and Works how the crane would be removed after having fulfilled its purpose. For the contractors, Peter Lind & Co Ltd., it was not seen as an issue for the crane to stay in situ.

Originally designed by Eric Bedford, the senior architect behind the actual build was Mr. G. R. Yeats and, although construction of the tower was completed in July 1964, it wasn’t officially opened until over a year later by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson on 8 October 1965, and was made open to the public on 16 may, 1966 when it was operated by Butlins. The total cost of construction came in at £2.5 million pounds, with the tower being constructed out of a whopping 13,000 tons of concrete and steel, with 50,000 square feet being used for the exterior windows alone.

The tower quickly became a familiar fixture in London; although visible from almost anywhere in the city, the tower was ‘officially’ a secret, not appearing on Ordnance Survey maps until Kate Hoey MP confirmed its existence on 19 February 1993. Originally meant to have been a simple stalk at 111m high, the design expanded and today it stands at 189m – the equivalent of 25 double-decker buses packed end-to-end. In comparison to other structures in London; the Gherkin stands at 180m; 1 Canada Square, 244m; finally, we have the Shard dominating at 310m. At the time of its completion the BT Tower held the title as the tallest building in London, as well as the United Kingdom, holding on to its claim until being overtaken by the NatWest Tower (183m) in 1980.

The narrow, cylindrical shape of the building was a pragmatic choice that conforms to the requirements of the communications aerials, allowing for the building to shift no further than 25cm when up against wind speeds in excess of 95mph. At the time of its public opening, the tower, in addition to office space and communications equipment, featured viewing galleries and a souvenir shop. The first 16 floors were for technical equipment and power. Following that, a 35 metre section was used to hold up microwave aerials.

Beyond these aerials, of course, lies the famous revolving restaurant, or ‘Top of the Tower’, on the 34th floor where, in 1971, a bomb was hidden in the men’s toilets of the restaurant. Fortunately, when the bomb exploded, nobody was injured or died: responsibility for the blast was claimed by the Provisional IRA. Debris from the explosion was littered along Cleveland Street and New Cavendish Street, going as far afield as Oxford Street. Windows below were blown out by the sheer power of the burst, and they flew along Charlotte Street and beyond. This was a turning point for the usage of the revolving restaurant. The initial damage was catastrophic and much of the western face of the building destroyed. All windows and the structure were damaged, with the western face completely exposed. Work soon begun to repair the tower and public access to the building ceased in 1980.

Today, much to the disappointment of Londoners below, access is exceptionally limited due to the practicality of a building that wasn’t designed with today’s regulations in mind. One cannot simply walk into the BT tower to see a 360 degree panoramic view of London from above. In fact, BT now have to exclusively invite people to visit the tower: such patrons have included Her Majesty the Queen, Their Royal Highnesses Prince Edward and Countess of Wessex, Lord Sugar, Orlando Bloom & Dame Kelly Holmes. The tower today is continually used for BT’s corporate and charity fundraising events and, in the event of an international crisis, is utilised to host an online donating system and call centre on the 34th floor – all of which can be arranged in less than 24 hours.

I was lucky enough to be invited to find out how it is inside. Before entering the tower, all entrants must put on visitor badges and undergo a strict airport security-style search of their person and belongings. Passing through the main lobby of the tower, guests are then led into a small lift to climb the tower. Stomachs clench and turn as the high-speed glass-elevator-esc lift transports you up to the 34th floor of the tower at 7metres per second, making it to the destination in just under 20 seconds (yes I was sad enough to take the time to count).

And then begins the rotating of the 34th floor of the tower, 158m above ground. Fitzroy Square appears so small, the size of a 10 pence coin. To the south, parliament sits in the distance on the banks of the Thames and the Shard pokes into the low clouds ahead. The entire floor, and the widest part of the tower at almost 20m, makes its rotations as if it were alive, taking 22 minutes to perform a single cycle.  The floor itself sits on trucks which move it – although I would protest that I enjoy heights, the moment that BT head of brand delivery, Ian Shaw, informed me that we were indeed rotating, I instantly started to feel somewhat alarmed, deciding to appropriately attach myself to a railing and continue nervously asking questions. “This is very much an operational BT building. We try to create as many opportunities for people to visit as possible. The tower is intrinsic to the operation of the United Kingdom. Some of the things that go on here have implications for the country as a whole.” Ian explains, nonplussed to the movement around.

Often I hear the assumptions that, since the removal of the radio antennas on the exterior of the building, the tower has become a defunct dusty relic to the company’s past. However, little known to the public, at the base of the tower lays the operations centre for BT’s broadcast services. From this £5 million state-of-the-art international media centre, nearly every transmission to every television in the United Kingdom, from every network in the world (from CNN, to the BBC, to Sky) is monitored. The Tower sits at the centre of a vast network and even played a crucial role in the first ever live international HD transmission, first international 3D transmission and a number of other broadcasting firsts. In 2012 the tower played a key role regarding an international event held in London. As Ian tells me, “We were the communications partner for the 2012 Olympics. Not a single message left the Olympic Park without passing over our network. It was something we really didn’t want to screw up!”

As a significant figure on the London skyline, BT and Camden Council have agreed that the building will steer clear of promoting commercial messages through the LED information band at the top of the tower. Installed in October 2009, the information band is made up of 177 separate panels each with 177,000 pixels and 528,750 LEDS. Considered to be the highest of its kind in Europe and Americas, messages such as the results of games during the 2012 London Olympics were presented to the city via here, as well as the ‘It’s a boy’ message displayed in summer 2013 to welcome the birth of Prince George. I find this works in line with BT’s tagline – “connecting people.”

On the ground floor, there is an overwhelmingly large hall of mostly disused data connections to the entire country which have steadily been replaced by fibre-optics. These sit in library fashion with individual wires stretching from right here in Fitzrovia, throughout London, Birmingham, Manchester, and beyond.

Still today, the upper floors of the tower, between the ground and 15th floor, have been largely disused for more than a quarter of a century. Midway up the tower, control boards still sit unused, vintage wiring sits unused and telephone centres sit unused. What echoes are the control panels of a SPECTRE-like lair from Sean Connery’s era of the James Bond series: I recall watching, from my previous home on Maple Street, this section of the tower; puzzling over what goes on here – disappointingly enough it does nothing at all, perhaps a suited alternative to Doctor Who’s TARDIS control panel at best.

The assumptions that pass between us all here in Fitzrovia are of a disused tower, a revolving restaurant that hasn’t turned for decades. This tower, this maypole of our villages is alive. It is the beating heart that connects us all in our day-to-day lives and it’s right here in Fitzrovia! Though still, despite all of these solutions I’ve been given to questions that have gone unanswered for so long, I can’t help but keep one thing in mind; in living so close to the tower that is not as disused as we may think, how is it that I still cannot get BT Infinity into my Berners Street flat? We go about our days and we look up to you. Under mist, rain and the heat of sun, we see you to know that we are home in Fitzrovia, all along the watchtower.