London - From the seafront promenade, Brighton Beach’s new tower is a daunting sight.
You have to crick your neck just to make out the top of the giant steel needle.
Although less than 13 ft thick, the British Airways i360 — named for its 360-degree views — is 531ft (about 162m) high.
Wrapped around it, a glass, doughnut-shaped viewing platform soars high above the sea before returning to the ground.
From this week, visitors will be carried to the platform’s maximum height of 450ft to take in panoramic views of the coastline. But not everyone is keen on the new £46-million landmark. Some residents have nicknamed it the “iSore”.
Dominating the town, the so-called “vertical pier” looms into sight soon after I leave Brighton railway station.
It stands slap-bang in the middle of the sea view from Brighton’s earliest seafront square, Regency Square, an 1830 gem, and the needle’s gleaming steel hardly blends in with Brighton’s 19th-century, classical beauty.
So could a ride in the i360 — the tallest moving observation tower on earth — convert its critics?
The climb in the viewing platform is so high and steep, it’s called a “flight” by the attendants, whose outfits bear the branding of the tower’s sponsor BA.
When you walk into the ticket office they even play the British Airways theme: The Flower Duet by Leo Delibes. For a moment, as the trolley dollies grin their 1 000-watt smiles, you could think you’re setting off for Antigua or Miami.
Except this is Britain in August, and the glass sides of the doughnut begin to spot with soft rain. As we take off, the pod moves at a stately 40cm — just over a foot — a second and you hardly notice you’re moving.
After 30 seconds, you’re level with the swooping gulls. After a minute, you’re climbing way above Brighton’s Palace Pier to the east. At two minutes, the brave holidaymakers I could make out on the windswept beach below are like ants. After three minutes, I look beyond the sloping streets to the country beyond.
And then, after five minutes and 45 seconds, without noticing it, you come to a halt at the top of the pole.
I stroll around the platform, which carries 200 people, ten times the capacity of the pods in the London Eye and also designed by David Marks and Julia Barfield, the architects who built the i360.
I am presented with a view of Britain unlike any I’ve seen before. To the south, the grey-green sea stretches towards France. To the west, you can look down to Worthing; to the east lies Brighton Marina; to the north, the South Downs. Yesterday, those views were truncated by a thick belt of mist. But, on a clear day, I’m assured you can see as far as Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters 20-odd miles away in the east and the Isle of Wight, 60 miles to the west.
Anyone with vertigo issues should steer clear of the pod’s bar, where you can enjoy local Nyetimber wine, Brighton Gin and Southdowns Water.
At £15 (about R300) for an adult and £7.50 for a child at walk-up prices (£13.50 and £6.75 for advance bookings), the experience is not cheap. But then the tower has to earn its keep. Brighton and Hove City Council has acted as a guarantor for a hefty £36-million government loan to pay for the project.
As well as 20-minute day flights, there’ll be 30-minute evening flights — and, for on-board marriages, there’s a special 40-minute matrimonial flight.
Anyone looking for daredevil thrills should take themselves right to the edge of the pod, and stare directly down to the resort hundreds of feet below.
Yet the pod feels remarkably safe and stable, even at its highest, partly because you’re insulated from the whistling wind and the screaming gulls by the glass.
But it’s also because the i360 — acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the world’s most slender tower, with a height-to-width ratio of more than 40-1 — is kept still by engineering devices with the wonderful name of “liquid sloshing dampers”.
These are Australian-designed chambers — filled with water mixed with anti-freeze for winter days to keep it liquid — which are housed all the way up the hollow steel tower. When the wind blows, the force of the moving water lessens the side-to-side vibrations of the tower. The tower is also wrapped in a perforated steel cladding, which disrupts the impact of stronger winds.
Certainly, I didn’t feel any movement at all. My heart was never in my mouth — but I still had an extremely exhilarating time of it.
In fact, I loved it. The tower is, in the end, sheer, vertical fun — the sort of madcap architecture that fits right in with the chintzy, jolly world of kiss-me-quick hats and Brighton rock.