Whenever I sail out of Portsmouth Harbour with Brittany Ferries to France or Spain, I make sure I’m on deck or at least by a window to enjoy the waterfront view. First the ships of the Royal Navy, then the Historic Dockyard with HMS Victory and HMS Warrior – one of my favourite family days out. Finally, as we approach open sea, we glide past the vibrant retail and cafe district of Gunwharf Quays, departure point for the Isle of Wight ferries.
And towering above them is the elegant outline of the Emirates Spinnaker Tower, which opened in October 2005 as the centrepiece of the £38 million ‘Renaissance of Portsmouth Harbour’ development project. The three viewing decks promise 350° views over the harbour, but I’ve never managed to check it out, so on a recent trip to France, I arrive in town early and head straight to Gunwharf Quays, a short drive from the cross-Channel ferry terminal.
For those who like statistics, the Emirates Spinnaker Tower is 547 feet high and took four years to build. Its design was chosen by the people of Portsmouth from three original concepts, the final choice reflecting a sail of an ocean-going yacht, or spinnaker. Amazingly, the total footprint of the tower is less than the size of six tennis courts and the whole structure is founded on 84 piles that were driven into the sea bed, the longest of which is 50 metres deep – the height of Nelson’s Column.
I’m lucky with a blue-sky day, so I’m hoping for great views over the historic harbour, the Solent and the Isle of Wight – a range of up to 23 miles on a clear day. But first a 4-minute animated film which showcases Portsmouth’s colourful history from Henry VIII to Nelson, Brunel to the D-Day landings. And I find out how many famous faces are connected to the city from Dickens and Kipling to H G Wells, Conan Doyle and Peter Sellars.
Then it’s into the high-speed internal lift for a 28-second whizz up 100 metres above sea level for that spectacular seagull’s eye view of the city and surrounding coastline. At which point, a word on accessibility. The lifts to the view deck and Clouds restaurant are wheelchair friendly and were in use by three disabled youngsters and their carers during our visit, but in the unlikely event of a malfunction or tower evacuation, visitors have to descend using the emergency staircase of 560 stairs – full accessibility details from the website.
I was pleased to find ample space on the first viewing deck for visitors to move around and experience the different panoramas from each side. And there’s no rush. Once you’re up there, you can stay all day if you want. Alternatively, your ticket is valid for the day, so you can come back and experience the view under changing light and weather conditions. Keep an eye out for the afternoon shadow of the tower on the landward side.
Explore the vista from the viewing deck with the help of i-VIEW, an interactive touch-screen experience which brings the landscape – and seascape – to life. The touch screens provide an overview of the city’s history too, as well as enabling you to zoom in and explore in minute detail.
But personally, I find it hard to take my eyes off the great outdoors and the ever-changing panorama of land, sea and sky. And the more you look, the more you see. HMS Warrior is easy to spot, directly below in the Historic Dockyard; Nelson’s Victory too, in front of the round Mary Rose ship hall. But both are dwarfed by HMS Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier which has arrived in harbour only a week earlier.
Look carefully and you start to spot smaller things too. Period properties in Portsmouth’s old town. Three strategic forts surrounded by the waters of the Solent. And ferries heading over from the Isle of Wight. There’s a constant buzz of vessels backwards and forwards through the harbour entrance, from tiny cruisers to cross-Channel ferries. The glass windows have a green tint which may not be obvious until you look at your photos afterwards, but it doesn’t spoil the experience.
Take your shoes off and you can test your nerve on the Sky Walk, the chance to cross a glass panel and look straight down on the quayside below. Head up a floor and the Clouds cafe on View Deck Two offers the chance to enjoy the scene over drinks and sweet treats, though be warned it can seem unbearably hot on sunny days. Visitors can enjoy High Tea here – in every sense of the word – or the Tower and Sparkles experience which I’m reliably told involves a glass of Prosecco.
Finally, it’s a 30-step climb to the Sky Garden, a small area facing the Solent which is open above to the elements. I’m hit by the smell of jasmine as I open the door onto the artificial grass beneath the deckchairs and beanbags. They’re already taken, but it’s good to feel the breeze in my hair and sunshine on my face as I enjoy the highest of high level views.
Back down at ground level, the Waterfront Cafe offers locally sourced produce with quayside views before you head out for some retail therapy in Gunwharf Quays outlet shopping village or perhaps, like me, to catch an evening ferry to France. Finally, if you’re unlucky enough to visit on a gloomy day, take advantage of the Spinnaker Tower’s customer guarantee. If you can’t see the three Solent forts from the top, speak to the duty manager and you’ll be given a free return visit to be used within three months. A different experience every time!
Emirates Spinnaker Tower is open daily 10:00 till 18:00. Admission costs £9.90 for adults (seniors £9); children 4-15, £7.65. Or buy a joint ticket with Portsmouth Historic Dockyward.
More details from www.spinnakertower.co.uk