Towers are seductive on many fronts. Architects and engineers are seduced by the mine's-bigger-than-your's impulse and grab at the opportunity to thrust a big, macho tower into the sky. Captains of industry and millionaire sponsors are seduced by the chance of leaving their mark on the landscape in ways that no one can possibly overlook. And for most of us (acrophobics excepted), the chance to safely share the views normally only seen by the birds - without having to climb a mountain - is well nigh irresistible.
With the Arcelormittal Orbit (or the Orbit as it will probably be called), Anish Kapoor's controversial sculpture for London's Olympic Park. calling attention to the urge to climb high up onto or into man made structures for great views, here are some of the best to be had in England.
The Spinnaker Tower
At 170 meters (about 558 feet), the Spinnaker Tower rises over Portsmouth Harbour, on the buzzy modern waterfront development, Gunwharf Quays. The views are spectacular and the tower itself is a graceful interpretation of a sail. On top, enjoy views of the Solent across to the Isle of Wight, of the ferries coming and going, of the Historic Dockyard - home of Nelson's ship the HMS Victory and the Mary Rose Museum, and of about 23 miles of the South Coast are pretty spectacular if you see them on a sunny day or a clear night. Viewing areas are on three "Decks". Deck 1 has a big glass "porthole" in the floor that's a bit unnerving. Deck 2, rather grandly called the Café in the Clouds, is basically a coffee counter with great views. Go up to the Crow's Nest on Deck 3 to feel the wind in your hair.
Admission is charged, with tickets available in a ticket hall at the base of the tower. Visit their website for more information.
The surprise success of the Millennium, the London eye, a 135 meter (443 feet) tall excursion wheel is as popular as ever. Before it rose, from a framework of gleaming white metalwork floated on the Thames, no one expected it to be more than a short-lived novelty. Soon sceptical Londoners fell in love with it - and so did visitors, year round by their thousands. It was the tallest wheel in the world when built, and though it has been surpassed by others, it's still the tallest wheel in Europe and the tallest cantilevered observation wheel in the world (It is supported on only one side, by an A-frame).
A flight on it is wonderful and even standing beside it is humbling. You can book a "flight" online but it's not hard to buy a ticket from machines in the ticket hall on the day. And don't worry, no matter how long the queues snaking along beside it look, you'll rarely have to wait more than 15 or 20 minutes to board. Needless to say, the views are superb - you can even, just about, see into the Queen's backyard at Buckingham Palace. Visit their website to find out more
Up at the O2
It takes a bit more effort, and a fearless attitude to heights to enjoy this view - but if you've ever looked at the O2 (formerly known as the Millenium Dome) and wondered what it might be like to climb on top of the giant tent, now's your chance. Up at the O2 is a 90 minute, guided "expedition" across the roof on what is described as a tensile fabric walkway, 53 meters (174 feet) above the ground. From the platform at the summit, you can wonder at the 360 degree view of London and get a different perspective on the Olympic Park, the Thames Barrier, the Historic Royal Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage site and Canary Wharf. Tickets for both adults and children are £22 (in 2012). Visit their website to learn more.
At 118 feet, this addition to the new Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon may be the baby of the bunch, but the views across Shakespeare country, including Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestshire as far as the Vale of Evesham, are lovely. From the tower's Juliet Balcony, you can also pick out many of the local landmarks associated with Shakespeare - including his birthplace and, on a good day, Anne Hathaway's house. When I visited, there was no orientation table, which really would have helped make sense of the scene.
You may not immediately associate the Eden Project in Cornwall with views from high places. The rainforest and Mediterranean gardens, in their biomes are plant lover's heaven of course, but views? Well in the rainforest, the largest rainforest in captivity, some of the plants are so tall that the gardeners and horticulturalists have to go up in a helium balloon to tend them. You can watch it all from a platform about 50 meters high - that's roughly 165 feet, if you have the courage to climb the flying metal staircase to the top. Find out more about the Eden Project.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit
Well I won't pull my punches - I really hate this thing, meant to be a lasting - and sustainable symbol of the London 2012 Olympics. All the more disappointing because giant spiral, surrounded by a freeform framework of red steel, is by my favorite sculptor, Anish Kapoor. The Eiffel Tower it ain't. For £15 (in 2012), you'll be able to ride to the top of this monstrosity with its 560 meters of tubular red steel ( did I mention that the sponsor of this, who has also named it, is a steelmaker) for views of London from 115 meters . It gets better. Every night, at the end of the Olympic events, it will light up for 15 minutes for a moving light show.
London now has the UK's first urban aerial tramway. The Emirates Air Line (they put up £36 million for a ten year sponsorship deal) takes passengers on a 5 minute aerial flight, 160 feet above the Thames, connecting two major visitor attractions which are also serving as London 2012 Olympic venues, the O2 and ExCel. It can carry 2,500 passengers an hour across the river - as many as can be carried by 30 buses and with much better views of course - East London, the O2, Olympic Park, Thames Barrier and a great sweep of the Thames.