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New history tour about the Royal Docks, Canary Wharf and Isle of Dogs – on the roof of the O2 Arena

PUBLISHED: 14:59 10 May 2018 | UPDATED: 14:59 10 May 2018

The group, just before beginning the dizzying 28 degree climb. Picture: Up at the O2

The group, just before beginning the dizzying 28 degree climb. Picture: Up at the O2

Archant

The Museum of London Docklands are giving their latest set of historical tours from the top of the O2 arena. The Recorder sent along reporter Rhiannon Long to find out why people are mad enough to want to learn about the docklands, 52 metres up in the air.

Helen Baranova and Dave Matthews, the historian and climbing guide who led the group. Picture: Rhiannon LongHelen Baranova and Dave Matthews, the historian and climbing guide who led the group. Picture: Rhiannon Long

What were you doing with your Wednesday morning? Probably not attemping a 28 degree climb, in the hail, to enjoy a view of the murky Thames with a bunch of keen history buffs.

‘Up’ at the O2 has been delivering climbs on its iconic domed roof for years, but today (Wednesday 2nd) was the first of its historic tours with the museum.

“I came up with the idea after doing some work at the Shard,” Dave Matthews told me, who’s been working at the museum for 12 years.

“We’ve been doing talks at the tallest points in the city – we have this dream of one day, being able to do an entire tour of the city from its highest vantage points.”

Climbing the dome of the O2. Picture: Rhiannon LongClimbing the dome of the O2. Picture: Rhiannon Long

To someone who could be described as ambivalent towards heights at best, this not only sounds terrifying, but also completely unnecessary. I was soon proven wrong though – our tour was sold out.

So, keen to see why people actually parted with cash to do this, I reluctantly joined the 12 others in getting kitted up.

We were given harnesses, jumpsuits and climbing shoes, and a safety video-come-O2 promotional opportunity was screened for three minutes. Then we were off.

Our cheery climbing guide, Helen, alleviated people’s nerves by cracking jokes as we walked. Finding out she’d had no climbing experience before taking on this job did little to calm mine, however.

The somewhat murky view at the top of the arena Picture: Rhiannon LongThe somewhat murky view at the top of the arena Picture: Rhiannon Long

“It was total chance – about two years ago I saw someone in a wheelchair riding across the top of the O2,” she said.

“I was completely mesmerised. I thought it incredible that such a seemingly able-bodied activity was available for anyone.”

Helen’s done about 500 climbs now, her worst being in the snow. The rule is, she said, if it’s not settling, we’re good to go.

Fortunately we were a whole six degrees away from such conditions, so I was counting my blessings. The ascent lasted around 15 minutes, but navigating the harness system in strong winds took most of my concentration, so sadly, the beautiful sights of east London’s docks were lost on me.

Views of the Thames and docklands from the viewing platform. Picture: Rhiannon LongViews of the Thames and docklands from the viewing platform. Picture: Rhiannon Long

I could soon enjoy them at the top, however, when we were given 10 minutes to take selfies and admire the varying shades of grey which make up the city. The majority of our tour were above what I’d deem ‘selfie’ demographic, so we swiftly moved on to Dave’s talk.

While I don’t mind history, I wouldn’t choose a talk about the Thames as a favourite pasttime. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.

Dave was a hotbed of weird facts about the river, and because of his friendliness and comforting east London accent, you didn’t feel like you were being lectured by someone who knows more than you – and is making a point to prove it.

We discovered where the Isle of Dogs got its’ name, why pub crawls are so-called, and why you don’t see any boats on the Thames anymore – I would share, but I don’t want to give away all the tour’s secrets.

The first group ever to be given the historic tour of the Thames at the top of the O2. Picture: Up at the O2The first group ever to be given the historic tour of the Thames at the top of the O2. Picture: Up at the O2

Dave even got slightly political, telling us about the residential tower that’s springing up in Canary Wharf, with its affordable housing requirement being met with £500,000 flats. “Would love to know how that’s affordable,” he noted astutely.

After his talk was done and I was wondering how long it takes before you can be medically diagnosed with frostbite, we began the descent. It was two degrees steeper than the climb up, Helen informed us cheerily, meaning we had to sidle down backwards. Imagine watching a YouTube clip of some mountain goats spritely springing up a hill, but in reverse.

In short, London isn’t short of gimmick attractions designed purely for tourists. This, I’m pleased and somewhat surprised to say, was not one of them. Dave knew his stuff, and being able to view Canary Wharf and Stratford in one go, while tracking the regeneration you can physically see taking place, was fascinating. You don’t need to be interested in history to be fascinated by what’s going on in east London at the moment, and this tour provided a good overview of it. Just don’t go when it’s raining.

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