The Shard, London’s Tallest Skyscraper, Opens To Public Today

Today London officially opens its newest landmark, a 1,016-foot skyscraper that has been under construction since 2009. As you can see above, the irregular pyramid-shaped building is entirely covered in glass, and resembles an icicle or chip of glass – hence the name, The Shard.

At 87 stories, the building is the tallest in the European Union. From the 68th to the 72nd floor, the new skyscraper has a viewing gallery and an open-air observation deck called The View from the Shard. Thanks to the fine folks at Visit London, I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek of the new attraction just a few days before it opened to the public. Although it was a snowy, overcast morning, the panoramic views from the top were impressive. From the 72nd floor, it was easy to let your eye follow the dramatic curves of the Thames River and spot many of London’s famous landmarks. Officials said on clear days, visibility could reach up to 40 miles.

For those who are not familiar with London’s cityscape, The Shard has made things easy. Several telescopic viewfinders not only let you zoom in to various spots around London, but have also been programmed to point out historical and otherwise important places and monuments. As you point the viewfinder in any direction, the names of certain landmarks pop up on a screen. If something is unfamiliar, just tap the name to learn more. It’s a great way to orient yourself and learn more about the city – and even if it ends up being an overcast day, the markers can indicate what isn’t visible beyond the clouds.

Besides the observation galleries, the building will house 600,000 square feet of office space, 10 luxury residences valued at $50 million each, a Shangri-La hotel, and three floors of restaurants and retail space.

The building marks a new phase for an improvement plan in the surrounding area, which will soon be known as the London Bridge Quarter. In addition to The Shard, a shorter building called London Bridge Place will be built nearby, and major updates are underway in the London Bridge rail and Underground station.

Reports from London say Mayor Boris Johnson officially cut the ribbon for The Shard earlier today, and a couple has already gotten engaged at the top. Now that it’s open, the attraction is expected to draw more than two million visitors a year, and comes with an entrance fee of £24.95, or about $39, for adults.

[Photo credit: blogger Libby Zay]

Best Places To Live In United Kingdom Named

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Thinking of relocating to the United Kingdom? Halifax Bank’s annual survey of the best places to live in the UK has just come out, with the district of Hart in Hampshire coming out number one.

Various factors were taken into account, including average wage, cost of living, crime, and average lifespan. While this survey is obviously geared towards residents and not visitors, a nice place to live is generally a nice place to visit.

UK media were quick to notice that all of the top fifty places were in southern England. Northern England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales didn’t win a single entry. As someone who has tromped all over the UK, I find this a bit surprising. The country grows steadily more beautiful the further north you go, and the people become nicer the further you go in any direction from London.

I suspect the Halifax survey is skewed towards economics. London is the UK’s economic powerhouse and the closer you live to it the better your economic opportunities are. Of course bringing cost of living and crime into the picture means London itself doesn’t score very well!

A favorite town of mine, St. Albans, ranked number 11 and may be typical of what Halifax was looking for. A prosperous town with a high average income thanks to its easy commuting distance from London, it’s generally safe and far cheaper than living in the city itself. It also has good shopping and leisure facilities. Click on the link to learn what there is to see in this easy day trip from London.

The Halifax survey also gets skewed to the south thanks to another criteria it takes into account: the weather. How the hell is Orkney supposed to compete with Hampshire when you take the weather into account?So what’s there to see in the Hart District of Hampshire? Its main town of Fleet is only 37 miles from London and there’s a train from Waterloo station. Besides the historic town itself, there’s the Fleet Pond Nature Reserve, shown below in this image courtesy Vicki Jull. Throughout Hart there are various historic sites and areas of natural beauty. The entire region is crisscrossed with historic canals, like the one shown above in this image courtesy David M. Moore.

So if you’re looking for a relaxing day trip from London, you might want to consider the Hart District.
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View From The Shard In London: Pre-Opening Glimpses

View from the Shard, which comprises three observatory floors at the top of the Shard, London’s tallest building, is not yet open for business. The new tourist attraction will open on February 1, 2013. This week, in conjunction with World Travel Market 2012, View from the Shard has been open for advance viewing by travel media.

The 72nd floor, the View from the Shard’s top observation point, is 800 feet high, an altitude that makes it the highest vantage point of any building in Western Europe. Twelve interactive high-tech Tell:scopes telescopes will provide information about scores of London landmarks. The top floor of the View from the Shard is actually open air, allowing visitors unnervingly direct access to the elements.

Renzo Piano’s sharply edged building has been controversial from the start. Now 95 percent owned by Qatar‘s sovereign wealth fund, the building has caused great division among Londoners. In addition to the View from the Shard observatory levels, the building will accommodate restaurants, a Shangri-La hotel, residences (which, according to the Guardian, will be priced from £30 million [$48 million]) and many floors of office space.

The View from the Shard will not be cheap to visit. Adult tickets will cost £24.95 ($40); children’s tickets will run £18.95 ($30).

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]


Blood Rain Predicted To Fall In The United Kingdom This Halloween

blood rain Blood rain just before Halloween? While it may sound like a festive prank, forecasters are really predicting this bizarre weather occurrence.

The phenomenon is actually a mix of red dust from the Sahara Desert blowing toward Europe. However, because it’s supposed to rain, the dust will most likely mix with the precipitation causing red raindrops, or blood rain.

Other predictions include the blood rain spattering and staining cars to mixing with snow to create a gruesome winter wonderland.

“The warm air has been drawn from a long way south down in north Africa and is spreading north,” London’s Met Office forecaster Emma Sharples told “But there is going to be a sharp contrast in weather as a cold snap sweeps across the country from Friday, which is likely to bring snow to Scotland and the north of England.”

This isn’t the first time the U.K. has experienced blood rain. Throughout history it has been noted, and in earlier times was used to presage unfortunate events. In fact, as early as 685 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded “there was a bloody rain in Britain. And milk and butter were turned to blood. And Lothere, king of Kent, died.”

Let’s hope this year’s blood rain is nothing more than an uncanny incidence.

[Image via Shutterstock]

Totnes: South Devon’s Alternative Village


Totnes, an Elizabethan town in the South West English county of Devon, isn’t your average West Country village. Totnes is what is increasingly known as a Transition Town – in fact, it is a model Transition Town.

What is a Transition Town, you ask? A Transition Town is a municipality focused on sustainable local economic growth by encouraging the use of local resources and local businesses. One expression of this philosophy is the circulation of a superlocal currency, the Totnes Pound, which is accepted by scores of shops in Totnes. This currency is an impressive innovation for a town of just 8,000 residents.

totnesNot surprisingly, Totnes can be said to possess a definite crunchiness, especially in the form of new age shops and the Friday and Saturday markets at the town’s Civic Hall Square. But if visitors come expecting Santa Cruz in the English countryside, they’ll be terribly disappointed. Totnes feels like a typical English market town, albeit one with a particularly dynamic local retail environment.

There are many ways to gauge this retail dynamism. The sheer range of shops and relative lack of empty storefronts is one. Here’s another: Aromatika, a highly respected, organic, vegan-friendly skin care products company, is headquartered in Totnes. Clearly, the town is a good motor for at least some sorts of entrepreneurial activity.

It is the plethora of small shops selling crafts, niche products and home furnishings that really help the town make a claim to retail excitement. Several home furnishings shops sell a range of well-curated products, both new and vintage. My favorite of these is a place called Inspired Buys (see above), whimsically stocked with a number of beautifully upcycled items, including old maps, hand-painted posters and signage. During my visit last week I fell in love with an old vintage canvas school map of Britain on sale there, the chalk markings of a teacher still visible. At £40 ($64) the map might not have been cheap, but it is also easy to imagine the vast mark-up that the map would command at a big city hipster design den.

There are other reasons to visit Totnes: the magnificent East Gate Arch on Fore Street, which makes the town feel cozy and contained, its 16th-century wooden houses, Totnes Castle, its rambling lanes, its many cafes (of which the best is probably The Curator Cafe and Store), and the South Devon countryside all around. But the retail is a serious draw, and not just for people who like to shop. Totnes is trailblazing a kind of economic future for towns focused on nurturing small local businesses.

Totnes is three hours from London by train. The least expensive advance roundtrip fare found during recent research: £43.50 ($70).

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]