‘I looked out and gasped’: BT Tower visitors reminisce over London landmark

<span>The Post Office Tower, still under construction in 1964, was once the UK’s tallest building.</span><span>Photograph: Ted West/Getty Images</span>
The Post Office Tower, still under construction in 1964, was once the UK’s tallest building.Photograph: Ted West/Getty Images

More than half a century on, Annabel Brown, 71, remembers visiting the BT Tower’s restaurant with her father in 1970 as a young student. “I was new to London and it was breathtaking. My father was someone who really embraced new things, and it was the place to go then. It was totally awe-inspiring because you moved all the time.”

Reminiscing about her visit to the London landmark amid the news that the structure is to be converted into an upscale hotel, Brown, from Suffolk, said: “The BT Tower was modern, very eye-catching, and dominating because it was the biggest thing around. Now it’s dwarfed by other buildings, but then it was really special.”

Brown’s dinner in London’s tallest structure at the time had the additional glamour of celebrity presence, she remembers, as the Carry On actor and comedian Kenneth Williams was also dining there that night. “It was very difficult not to keep looking at him!” she recalls.

Brown was glad to hear that the building’s doors would be open to the public once more, after the restaurant became invite-only in 1971 following a bomb attack, and then shut entirely in 1980 after the owner’s lease expired. But she added that the expense was likely to keep it out of reach for most people. “It’s probably a good thing if they can make it accessible to the public – even though it might just be those with a few bob in their pockets.”

A BT employee from 2004 until last year, Mauro Mortali has had his fair share of trips up the tower, mostly with BT clients. Mortali, who is 50 and now works as a consultant and coach, said the visits were “such a draw” for customers, who would be given a tour of the structure, including its rotating top.

Related: BT Tower: a history of the London landmark – in pictures

As an employee, Mortali, who lives in Buckinghamshire, also got the chance to visit the tower with his family, several decades after it closed to the public. “Every year at Christmas, BT would open up the tower to employees and their families for a charity affair, to meet Santa at the tower, so my girls got to experience that amazing view,” he said, explaining there were activities for the children. “They loved it. The best bit is being able to get that 360-degree view of London – there are signs showing the landmarks on the glass.”

While he was thankful that there were plans for the building Mortali also felt a twinge of sadness at the news of its conversion. “I am relieved it will have a future and remain a famous landmark,” he said, referencing its inclusion in the classic Thames TV London skyline ident and a 1971 episode of The Goodies. The futuristic building, which was first known as the Post Office Tower and then Telecom Tower, also played its part in a 1966 Doctor Who storyline. “But I’m also sad that it will no longer be with BT. I always had a sense of pride whenever I’d see it, to know that something so iconic across the world was associated with my employer.

“It’s almost like a source of comfort – something that’s always there.”

For others, zooming up to the viewing gallery on the tower’s 34th floor was unforgettable. David Lewis, in his mid-60s, remembers visiting as a 10-year-old on his first trip to London in 1968. “I will never forget the experience of taking a few steps towards the windows and gasping at the sudden realisation that the scene beyond the glass was the actual, 3D world, seen from the privileged position of a quite unimaginably great height.” Lewis, who now lives in northern France, added that he has since ascended many tall buildings “but nothing comes close” to that first adrenaline rush.

Unsurprisingly, the panorama was a cut above what had formerly been his favourite vista. “[It] was qualitatively different from what had been my favourite view until then, namely the one from the top of the multistorey car park in Cardiff.”

Despite being a revolving restaurant in the sky, the venue didn’t quite live up to every child’s imagination. Verity Fletcher, 58, who works in technology, said: “When I was a little girl, my grandfather took me to a fancy dinner at the tower and I expected to be whizzing around just like on a fairground ride while eating. I remember feeling an overwhelming feeling of disappointment that the restaurant revolved at a snail’s pace.”

“I didn’t dare share that disappointment with my grandfather as I always remember him feeling really proud that he took me to such a fancy restaurant that had such lovely views of London.”

Fletcher says she can’t wait to see the Tower, which was granted Grade II-listed status in 2003, transformed into a hotel and is excited about the prospect of returning after all these years. “When BT had control over the building it was closed to the public, so once it’s open I will be desperate to get back up there, have a drink maybe and enjoy the views.

“For the last 25 years, I have lived less than half a mile from the tower. Whenever I look up at it, I remember that day and smile.”