London's worst kept secret

London Photo Walks. Walking tours around the great city of London

Still making an impressive mark on the London skyline is London’s sixth tallest structure – the BT (British Telecom) Tower.

BT Tower London

Originally known as the Post Office Tower it was built to handle the nation’s communications traffic. At one time the midsection was covered with microwave aerials, but by December 2011 the last of the dishes were removed as digital technology took over.

Construction began in 1961 and at the time of its completion in 1964, it was the tallest building in London at 627 feet (191 metres). It held this record until 1980 when the NatWest Tower (now called Tower 42) opened in the City.

Because the tower’s aerials also carried military signals it was said that the tower was protected by the Official Secrets Act so was designated an official secret, its existence not officially acknowledged, it didn’t appear on any maps and the taking and storing of photographs of it was forbidden.

This was all a bit daft since it was the tallest structure on the horizon and the tower was open to the public for 15 years with a revolving restaurant and observation platforms.

The suggestion it didn’t appear on any maps simply wasn’t true. Ordnance Survey maps showed the complex as “Telephone Exchange & Post Office Tower” and it also appeared on the A-Z Map, the London Street by Street Map and Bartholomew’s atlas.

The myth was given more credibility when MP Kate Hoey used parliamentary privilege in 1993 to “reveal” its existence and its address of 60 Cleveland Street, London.

The fear of nuclear conflict in the 1960s was a major influence on its design. Architects Eric Bedford and G.R. Yates noted that the only building that survived the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were round ones, the shape allowing the blast wave to surge around it.

BT Tower Reflection London

The tower’s lifts (renewed in 2000) can travel from the top to the bottom in 20 seconds. Able to ascend at 7 metres per second (15 mph), they are amongst the fastest in Europe. It is said they are the only lifts in Britain that can be used in the event of a fire. This may have been true at the time of opening but several other London buildings have fire lifts such as The Shard and Heron Tower.

It is also said that the tower has no stairs (hence the lifts had to be used in a fire). This isn’t true either, it has 842 of them.

Here is a fascinating video looking inside the tower. Check out the restaurant’s chef with a missing finger at 5:05 and if you look closely at 4:20 you can see the smoke bellowing from Bankside power station, now home to Tate Modern.

The 34th floor of the tower was home to a revolving restaurant called “The Top of the Tower” run by Billy Butlin (he of the holiday camp fame). A full rotation took 22.5 minutes. In 1971 a small bomb was left in the men’s toilets on the 31st floor. It was claimed to have been planted by the IRA but it is thought more likely it was the work of a group called the Angry Brigade protesting against the Government taking the country into the Common Market. The restaurant remained open until 1980 when the lease expired.

Before construction a borehole survey revealed that the hard chalk suitable for foundations was 174 feet down; too far to be practically used. The solution was to build an 88 foot square concrete raft 26 feet below street level supporting a concrete pyramid, on top of which sits the central core of the tower. So the whole tower floats on a bed of London clay and in 100mph winds will not sway more than 7.4 inches.

About Us offers walks combining historic facts with expert photographic tuition to capture stunning images of iconic London landmarks. Led by Mike Silve, a born and bred Londoner and full-time photographer, our walks are ideal for those who want to learn more about this historic capital, get the best from their camera and seek out the best views of the city, its buildings and people.

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