The y axis never gets enough attention when we’re thinking of things to do. Forget pottering around on the ground – here’s our guide to the all the high-up fun you can have across Britain …
Helicopter ride along the Thames
Height: 800 – 1500 feet
‘You see that tower block?’ says our pilot Adam, as we fly over Acton. ‘That was Nelson Mandela Towers in “Only Fools and Horses”. It wasn’t in Peckham at all.’ Adam got this information from David Jason, who’s a qualified pilot himself and flies helicopters out of the same High Wycombe airfield as Heliair. Today’s ride takes us down to Kew, along the river to Tower Bridge and then back again. It’s great fun trying to work out where you are – a bit like looking at a full-scale copy of the A to Z. What’s more the view is astonishingly full. A similar ride I took in Manhattan used a much bigger helicopter, restricting the view of anyone sitting in the middle. But in this four-person model, made (it seems) almost entirely from Perspex, everyone can see everything. ‘All sorts of people do this,’ says Adam. ‘I’ve seen marriage proposals – no one’s said “no” so far. And I once piloted a 96 year-old who had the experience on her bucket list. She’d only ever lived in Shoreditch, Fulham and Clapham – we pointed out all three places for her.’ On the way back, over Northolt, Adam indicates four sculpted mounds of earth. ‘Those were built from the rubble of the old Wembley stadium,’ he explains. One of the mounds has a running track snaking up it. ‘You see people training on that one.’ It must be a real climb, although of course from this angle it just looks as though they’re running around in circles. Back at Heliair’s base, the final minute of the ride, like the first, involves flying parallel to the ground, no more than 8 feet up. It’s wonderfully satisfying, almost as though you’re levitating.
Heliair also offer flights in other parts of Britain
Tel: 01789 470476
Height: 3500 feet
People who are scared of heights always ask the same question about a parachute jump: ‘Aren’t you scared about the parachute not opening?’ Well, no – the chances of that are literally millions to one. And doing a static line jump, as I did, means you don’t even have to worry about opening the thing yourself: it’s attached to the plane by a cord, so all you have to do is jump out – when the cord’s fully unravelled it opens the parachute for you. What I wasworried about was not landing properly: that can break your leg, or even your spine. Fortunately the two-day course not only tells you how to crumple up properly as you land, it also warns you about ‘ground rush’, the weird way that in the final second or two the square yard of Nottinghamshire you’re heading for seems to jump up to meet you.
Skydive Langar, Control Tower, Langar Airfield, Langar, Nottinghamshire, NG13 9HY
Height: 500 feet
A disused quarry in north Wales might not sound like the most exciting place in the world. But this quarry has had the world’s fastest zipline strung across it. Don’t worry about letting go – you’re attached to the line by a body harness, so you travel horizontally and face-down. Gravity does the work, zooming you the length of the line (a mile) at speeds of over 100mph. But actually the real thrill comes not so much from the speed (with the sides and bottom of the quarry so far away that’s hard to judge), as from the sensation of flying. Look down and you can forget the line is there, allowing you to imagine you’re a bird, soaring on high.
Zip World, Penrhyn Quarry, Bethesda LL57 4YG
Climbing the O2
Height: 170 feet
The ‘Up at the O2’ walkway was meant to be a temporary attraction for the 2012 London Olympics – but it proved so popular it’s still there to this day. The climb involves just the right level of exertion: you feel as though you’ve achieved something, but you don’t have to be Sherpa Tenzing. (And you’re harnessed to a safety wire, so there’s no chance of reproducing James Bond’s roll down the dome in The World Is Not Enough). The viewing platform at the top is 52 metres high (for the number of weeks in a year), just as the O2’s diameter is 365 metres (days in a year) and there are 12 yellow masts (months in a year). Amazing to think that the air underneath the O2 weighs more than the O2 itself. Our guide Ellie says that some people choose the top to propose (and unlike Heliair they have had refusals). She points out London’s only lighthouse, at Trinity Buoy Wharf over the river. And then, because Ellie plays for Crystal Palace Ladies 2ndXI, our conversation turns to West Bromwich Albion – whose ground the Hawthorns is, at 551 feet above sea level, the highest football ground in England’s top four divisions.
The O2, Peninsula Square, London,SE10 0DX
Tel:0208 463 2680
Hot air balloon
Height: 3000 feet
If you like verticality of the tranquil sort, this is the experience for you. A hot air balloon rises so gently that it feels more like the ground is dropping away, while once you’re up in the sky you don’t notice the wind because (by definition) you’re moving along with it. Equally that means your itinerary can vary from two to 20 miles – you simply have to let nature take its (and your) course. All of which evokes the era of the Montgolfier brothers, who completed the first ever balloon flight in November 1783 – and indeed Jacques Charles, who a month later became the first man ever to see two sunsets in one day (the first from the ground, the second from the air).
Adventure Balloons, locations across the country
Sleep up high
Height: 331 – 554 feet
The first seriously tall hotel in this country (331 feet) was the Hilton on London’s Park Lane, which opened in 1963. Four years later it was the venue for the Beatles’ first meeting with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, while in the 1990s it was where the Pools Panel met. Hilton have since upped their game (sorry) even further with their Manchester Deansgate hotel, which inhabits the city’s Beetham Tower, Britain’s tallest building outside London (554 feet – though later this year it will be overtaken by another skyscraper, also in Manchester). Meanwhile in Birmingham the Radisson Blu hotel also houses itself in a Beetham Tower (this one standing 397 feet tall). Very appropriate in the city that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create the Two Towers of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings.They’re thought to have been based on two local structures, Perrott’s Folly and a tower at Edgbaston Waterworks.
London Hilton Park Lane, 22 Park Lane, London,W1K 1BE, 0207 493 8000
Hilton Manchester Deansgate, 303 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 4LQ, 0161 870 1600
Radisson Blu Birmingham, 12 Holloway Circus, Queensway, Birmingham, B1 1BT, 0121 654 6000
Eat up high
Height: 351 feet
The top three floors of Swansea’s Meridian Tower are occupied by the Grape and Olive restaurant, run by the Welsh brewery Brains. The company used to sponsor the national rugby team, and when Wales played in Paris they cleverly got round the French ban on advertising alcohol by replacing the word ‘Brains’ on the shirts with ‘Brawn’. The Meridian Tower is Wales’s tallest building – you’ll be eating at a shade under 351 feet. That’s high, high, high, Delilah.
Grape and Olive, Meridian Quay, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, SA1 1JW
Tel: 01792 462617
Step up high
Height: 560 feet
The Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth takes both its name and shape from a type of sail that billows outwards. Representing the city’s maritime traditions, the tower has three observation decks offering incredible views. The lowest of these – though that’s still 328 feet up – has Europe’s largest ‘walk on air’ glass floor: gather your courage and step out, looking down at the sheer drop below you. Contestants on ITV’s dieting show The Biggest Loser had to walk up the Spinnaker’s 1500-plus steps. Don’t worry: you can take the lift.
Emirates Spinnaker Tower, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth, PO1 3TT
History up high
Height: 220 – 521 feet
Those who prefer their history with added myth and legend should head to Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. Climb the 521-foot hill – though not with hard peas in your shoes, as pilgrims once did as a penance – and you’ll find St Michael’s Tower, where the last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1539 during the Reformation. Some say that beneath the hill lies a hidden cave through which you can enter the fairy realm of Annwn, home to the Cauldron of Rebirth. Others will tell you that the hill is where Jesus’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, left the Holy Grail – possibly travelling here with his nephew, hence William Blake’s Jerusalem. Both the Cauldron and the Grail were sought by King Arthur and his knights. You can contemplate all this from the top of the Tor. Or you could just enjoy the 360 degree views.
Similar amounts of your breath will be taken by the view from the 220-foot National Wallace Monument near Stirling. Built in 1869 to commemorate Scotland’s national hero William Wallace, the sandstone tower sits atop Abbey Craig, the forested hill from which old Braveheart watched King Edward I’s army gathering for the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. The items displayed include Wallace’s sword, pretty impressive at 5 feet 4 inches long, though the man himself ended up on the wrong end of some English steelwork – after the execution his four limbs were sent to different cities to warn people against rebelling. Wallace’s left leg is now to be found in the wall of an Aberdeen cathedral.
Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, BA6 8BG
Tel: 01278 751874
National Wallace Monument, Abbey Craig, Hillfoots Road, Causewayhead, Stirling, FK9 5LF
Tel: 01786 472140