Last weekend I volunteered to answer questions at the top of the Gherkin for visitors during Open House weekend. I welcomed millions to the top and it has taken me a whole week to recover (well, ok, I exaggerate – it was only about 5,000 people and I did get eventually my voice back on Tuesday night…)
Day 1. The queue had already reached the end of St Mary Axe when Ben and I arrived at 7am, an hour before opening time. We chatted to everyone waiting and discovered that the couple at the very front had arrived at 6.15am. While Ben helped Jason from Searcys set up the Gherkin Guides I heard all about the success of Maggie’s Culture Crawl from three women who had made friends on the overnight route, watch the sunrise from the top of the building (the last stop on the Crawl) and stayed to chat. That was the last time I relaxed (or sat down) for the next 12 hours.
The building opened, the aim being 50 people every 15 minutes. It felt like an unstoppable ocean of visitors – I welcomed people as they came out of the lifts (congratulations you’ve reached the top of the Gherkin, thanks for queuing) , directed people (look out to the west on level 39, up the stairs to the glass dome – you must see the 360˚ view on level 40) answered everyone’s questions (Norman Foster, 7429 panes of glass), asked children if they could spot the only piece of curved glass in the building (they absolutely loved discovering it), took photos of people with their cameras for them (if you stand just here both you and your reflection will be framed by the diamonds of the building, it’s an amazing shot) and entertained queues waiting for the lifts down with facts and stories (one time for 20 minutes as the lifts stopped working!) It was a really lovely atmosphere at the top – we were all aware everyone had been waiting for ages to get in and all the Open House volunteers joined me in saying ‘Welcome to the Gherkin!’ ‘You’ve made it’ and ‘Thanks for waiting in the queue!’ as people arrived. The security staff were fantastic, smiling throughout and chatting as they brought people up in the lifts, and not a single person complained when their time at the top was over. Ben and Jason proved to be brilliant at selling books, which was just as well because I was hopeless – constantly answering questions, helping identifying things in the view or rushing to welcome another lift full of people. I spotted Victoria Thornton, the founder of Open House London, at one point and let everyone know who she was – she received a huge round of applause.
I did leave the top once when I popped out and speak to people in the queue – it took me 1.5 hours to walk around it!!! I thanked people for their patience, told them it was extraordinarily marvellous at the top and worth waiting for and that I would see them at the top to answer their questions. Of course, everyone wanted to know how long the wait was and I could only tell them the 30 St Mary Axe team were trying to get 80 people in every 15 minutes (rather than 50) to try and fit in as many people into the building queue as possible. If they pushed for an exact time I had to say I was doing ‘queue encouragement’ and someone from the building would be round to do ‘queue management’! In the end we stayed open till 6pm, two hours later than advertised. The last people left by 7pm – I got home at 9pm and had to lie down the moment I got in.