London, England

Distant Lights: climbing the London skyrises

Date January 2010
Posted May 2011
Night visits to London's incomplete skyscraper projects
Liverpool, England. An icy Sunday afternoon in November, snow on the ground. It seemed improbable, and it was. A solitary giant cctv camera overlooked a vehicle entrance but the hoarding separating the giant new construction from the neighbouring hotel wouldn't be hard to climb. There was no other activity on site, no reason to suspect one should be caught other than that feeling that such a thing shouldn't be possible. I grasped the top of the board and hauled myself over. Two meters away, the reefdog was doing the same. We dropped onto the slippery wall below and edged towards the side of the building.

And so, it had begun.

Heron Tower, London, England (2010) courtesy of

Our fascination with the city at night, and what it might provide, was nothing new. For some time we'd been committed to the belief that recreational trespass couldn't really lead to that much trouble, but now we had embarked upon a new crusade. That day in 2005 we discovered that it was both fun and satisfying to breach such high profile premises as the new Unity Tower construction and explore them, finally taking to the rooftop and admiring a personal view of the city below. Of course, we weren't 'supposed' to be doing this, but that only added to the enjoyment. The lifts (where fitted) were stationary, the stairwells deserted. For an hour or two, the place was ours.

Unsurprisingly curiosity led me to the bright lights of London. Here I teamed up various times with the one they call zero, literally taking this quiet, relatively harmless endeavour to new levels. Over the years many buildings of this kind have been climbed, but these four were, for me, the most memorable.

Stock Exchange Tower 100m

A wee nipper by later standards, but a first taste of London's wares. In the 1970s and 80s the building had served as the HQ for the LSE. Later in 1990 the PIRA had a go at smashing the place up, firing off a bomb which closed the building down. During its renovation phase myself and zero crept in a couple of times, chilling out up on the roof with the faint sounds of London's night-life continuing down below.

Stock Exchange Tower, London, England (2006) courtesy of

Back then it felt like a bigger deal than those early escapades in Liverpool. More street-based cctv and that irritating chopper buzzing around overhead. Gradually we were to learn that for the most part, nobody was watching. Some people we could see in other tall buildings, faces mere inches from TFT screens, working those extra hours. Further down on the streets others were drinking themselves into oblivion over the horror of that office life above. Meanwhile the police were torn between council estate drug raids and dragging off street photographers for apparently suspicious behaviour. This all indicated that we were free to continue. So we did.

Pan Peninsula 147m

After missing out on nearby Ontario Tower it was good to finally reach the top of something worthwhile in the London Docklands. Another security hotspot but one where, apparently, you could get away with just as much as you could in the City. The usual countermeasures were encountered: some wooden boarding a whole 7ft tall, a dark, battered security cabin (contents unknown), a dusty surveillance camera (operational status unconfirmed).

Pan Peninsula, London, England (2007) courtesy of

Not unnoticed here at 'Pan Pen' or at other sites were the cranes. As you'd expect, often they reach higher than the rooftop, and present something more representational of a 'climb' in the traditional sense. The crane at Pan Pen was connected via a walkway to the building, several floors below the roof. This I'd first seen in Manchester at the Beetham Tower (missed during construction, but climbed later for good measure), and now we were free to take advantage of it and easily move between both structures.

The Broadgate Tower 164m

Climbed in mid-Spring, just before dawn. Those diligent police were occupied down below as the pair of us stood on the counterweight of one of the big red cranes, posing for a photo being taken from the roadside below with a 300mm lens. I can't remember if the third member of our group managed to take the photo, but the irony of him being interrogated for questionable behaviour was the cause for much laughter on our return to the ground.

The Broadgate Tower, London, England (2007) courtesy of

As the sun begins to rise the city takes on a special glow. It's almost daytime, but the lights are still on. This is perhaps the time when a sprawling expanse of dense human existence can look its most beautiful. And this was why each time we came back, captivated not just with the puzzle of finding our way to the roof, but also with that calm temporary surreality. And it always was temporary: on this occasion work was beginning on site as we left, forcing us to play a game of escape and evade with the work crew before dropping from the hoarding back onto the street.

Heron Tower 230m

Camera'd up like a bastard, and no surprise. As always though there was that little route past the watchful electronic eyes of the surveillance system. The tower wasn't quite at full height but for me and siologen it was something new, scaled just before I disappeared off to the US for a few months. Together we admired The Gherkin, which appeared to be contemplating our fate like some gigantic robot head.

Heron Tower, London, England (2009) courtesy of

By January 2010 it was no secret that midnight intruders were enjoying the tower in ways generally not approved. Enhanced security measures made getting up to the roof that little bit harder. One particular night, luck was to run out. Descending the stairs, suddenly I was aware that someone else was coming up from below. I looked at ToothDr and his expression confirmed it wasn't my imagination. We stopped moving. They stopped too. A crackle of static gave away our adversary's position. Carefully we crossed the floor we were on, only to find another guard on the second staircase, radio in one hand, phone to the police in the other. He didn't look happy: the game was seemingly up.

A little social engineering goes a long way. Outrunning a security guard down the stairs and escaping from the premises before the Met turn up will take you even further. In ToothDr's case it came at the price of a busted ankle.

Here's to all those with whom I claimed the rooftops by night, and will do again, staring out at those distant lights, notably Frank, DLB, Scott, northcave, marshall, dsankt and q-x.
Show a little love!