Voyage to the 32nd Floor of the Shard

the two-button elevator panel at The Shard in London

We heard there was a bar at the top of the Shard in London.

As the Shard is 87 floors, and the bar is on floor 32, that is not precisely true. But 32 stories up is enough to give you a view of London Bridge, the Thames, and everything else at enough distance that it all looks a little remote and magical. I think that happens at about 20 stories up. You can’t see the people anymore and, especially at night, you only see this glittering, shadowy shape of humanity. I especially like it in a place like London, where people have lived for so very long. Even viewed from an uber-modern glass skyscraper, the shape of more than a thousand years of people is still plain around you.

Even if you’re in a swanky bar made to house the beautiful people, or those who would like to pretend to be them for a bit.

An aside: here’s a suggestion, from me to you, on your trip from the US to Europe. Even if you don’t think you’ll want to go to the fancy afternoon tea or out dancing or whatever people who are better shod than I usually am like to do, bring one mildly formal outfit. A non-casual dress, or a dress shirt and nice pants. Something like that. And, perhaps most crucially, shoes that cannot be mistaken for sneakers in any light, at any time.

I had reclaimed my bag earlier, and I gleefully changed from my train station-bought clothing into my clothes, from my bag of my favorite stuff that I’d packed specifically to feel a little fabulous in Europe. So, despite it having been a day of wandering dustily through Kensington Garden and Hyde Park and then hunting for Sherlock Holmes, I was wearing ballet flats and a dress with a surprisingly subtle print of cats.* One of the few handy things about being a woman who tends femme is that dresses can be fake fancy very easily, even though a lot of dresses are basically large shirts.

Tom and I looked ourselves over to see if we’d have any concerns with a possible dress code at a possible fancy bar. The sole questionable element was his shoes, which were far from the big white trainers of nightmare Americans, but still had laces. “Just stand behind my bag,” I said. “You’ll look all chivalrous, carrying my bag, and it’ll be FINE.”

After the days of wayward bag, I felt like the universe owed me a break. I wanted to have an elaborate, overpriced cocktail in a bar with a view with someone I loved. That was all.

But the real gravity of all of this was unknown to us at this point. At the entrance to the elevator pictured above, a man and a woman in black suits and Secret Service-style earpieces were standing guard, and their entire purpose seemed to be to conduct a sartorial review of everyone who entered. I, in my girly camouflage, barely merited a glance. But they saw right past my incredibly clever bag ruse and promptly began a surprisingly involved debate about said shoes.

“I don’t know if they’re going to allow it.”

“They’re kind of like trainers.”

“But different.”

“But you know.”


“Well, let’s leave it to them up there then.” And, just like that, we were directed to an unknown higher authority. A tribunal for overly comfy Americans.

That is how we ended up, just the two of us, in the elevator with two stops. We giddily talked about what might await is up there and how we might be judged.

It was, we agreed, a lot of to-do over cocktails.

Another aside, after so many uninterrupted paragraphs: it is both good content design and my own preference to fill posts like this with lots of pictures. This one is an exception (though not the only one) for a few reasons. First, as you might guess by the conversation above, it wasn’t a situation where brandishing a camera felt either smart or natural. I was too busy wondering if we were going to get to do the thing we’d shaped the later part of our night around. Second, once we got into the elevator and emerged into the dramatically lit hallway on floor 32, I just wanted to… be.

When I was in Paris last summer, I deliberately didn’t buy a camera to bring with me. I took occasional pictures with my old iPhone 4, and I very occasionally borrowed Tom’s camera to take a picture of something especially good, but mostly I wanted to be in the moment, and I chose to observe and record only in my journal.** I prefer to take pictures now, because of this blog and because it’s fun, but now and then, such as when Tom and I emerged from the elevator onto a frosted glass balcony that was empty except for a beefy guy in the same doorman drag as his ground floor counterparts, I prefer to just… be.

We began to ask about the shoe matter, knowing that this solo sentinel would also see right past my clever bag ruse. He stopped us.

“Aqua Shard is closed.”

Now that my bag was back and the need for compartmentalizing had passed, I was able to fully feel things like disappointment and frustration again. My stomach twisted; it was our last night in London before going to Brussels, and our second time attempting the bar at the Shard. We’d come by the night before, only to find a series of closed, darkened doors.

He considered this for a long moment. “Oblix is open, though.”

I stared at him, waiting for clarification. Finally, I asked, “What’s Oblix?”

“Bar around the corner.” He pointed past us at a hallway lined in textured cement that gathered the light from the LED “candles” embedded along the floor to create millions of thin, dancing shadows. “You’re good for there.”

And we were. We checked my bag with two extremely dressed-up young women and walked down a long, L-shaped hall, to…

…the bar.

20-plus stories of distance renders most things observed more magical than they are. But that, plus night, plus floor-to-ceiling windows, and suddenly just the act of seeing becomes something special and rare. Even though we were sharing the bar with about 30 of our closest friends and a  jazz band, it felt like secret access, like the perfect, picturesque end to a weird, frantic, fun three days in London.

We settled onto a loveseat, next to one of the overpowering windows, London Bridge and the Thames like miniatures next to us. Finally, suddenly, it seemed like a long, odd, good day was going to have a sweet ending.

Oblix is serious about their cocktails, to the point of being a little fun and easy to tweak. For instance, here is what Tom ordered:

The Betsy Theory

One of the many legends told of the origins of the ‘cocktail’ is
that of Betsy Flanagan: In the 1700s, during the English occupation
of northern Virginia, she had a tavern frequented by French and American
soldiers. Betsy was renowned for her alcoholic concoctions. To show her
support of the rebels, she decorated her drinks using tail feathers from
roosters, stolen from the British Commissary. The name cocktail was
born as a drink for rebels and a cry for freedom by the oppressed.
As the actual ingredients she used are unknown, the
Betsy Theory is inspired by her story.

Bulleit Rye Whisky,
tobacco, cacao liqueur
with mint & peach bitters

Crafted as a julep and served in a silver plated cup over carved ice,
garnished with the feather of a cock’s tail.

I will point out that there was no feather to be seen. Indeed, when I looked up the menu, I wondered if perhaps they’d since removed the feather reference. No; still there. It’s a good drink (though curiously free of tobacco flavor), and worth it just for the spectacle of the cup. I ordered something with egg white. If it’s possible, I always order something with egg white. It’s an approach to life I recommend adopting, if you have the slightest inclination.

And then, we… sat. We canoodled, I suppose, because that’s what you do when you’re on a sofa overlooking one of the most famous cities in the world, when you’re a couple days into a trip you’re thrilled about, and when, once again in possession of your toothbrush and boots, you’re able to think that things might just work out after all.

We stumbled down a while later, caught the last train back to my friends’ flat in Balham, and woke up the next morning to wind our way under the Channel to Belgium.

*That’s right.

**Which I feel was the right decision in the moment, but sometimes I think of the street art I saw in Montmartre and wish so badly I’d recorded it, because I’m sure it’s turned over by now, and what I loved has been replaced. I won’t make the same mistake next month.***

***That’s right. 😀

P.S. I wrote this post while participating in Hugo House’s 30/30 challenge. I’m writing at least 30 minutes a day all month. I post my favorite sentences of the day on Twitter. Please donate! I’ll keep writing regardless, but you’ll be encouraging me and supporting a great Seattle institution.

Baker Street Is Made of Misdirection

Sherlock Holmes tile in the Baker Street Underground station

It starts in the Baker Street Underground station.

221b Baker Street sticker on the back of a street signYou get another quiet little hint once you emerge on the street.

Sherlock Holmes cafe sign on Baker StreetThe surrounding businesses are only too glad to contribute clues.

Sherlock Holmes has an official dry cleaner, it seems.Seems legit. You don’t want to wash your deerstalker on permanent press, after all.

Sherlock Holmes cafe and beveragesBaker Street is basically a celebration of finite copyright.

221b Museum sign on Baker StreetBut could we be getting close?

The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker StreetSort of. But that isn’t 221b.

There doesn’t seem to be one.

This is the building that stands between 219 and 231.

The possible 221b Baker Street?

Curiously unnumbered.

What must it be like to pay millions of pounds to live at what may be one of the most famous addresses in the world… but to prefer to keep it on the DL? Is it a curious pride, or just irritation that the building in your price range with the amenities you like happens to have literary significance that keeps tourists gawping at your front door all year round?

The woman in this story probably has some idea.

This series of pictures, and this weird, unplanned little investigation, brought to you by fish and chips restaurants with a BYOB policy and a Tesco in easy walking distance.

P.S. I wrote this post while participating in Hugo House’s 30/30 challenge. I’m writing at least 30 minutes a day all month. I post my favorite sentences of the day on Twitter. Please donate! I’ll keep writing regardless, but you’ll be encouraging me and supporting a great Seattle institution.