Brighton from the skies

John Westbrooke visits a new attraction on the south coast

Mirrored underside of the i360. British Airways i360
View of Brighton. British Airways i360
View east from the i360. British Airways i360
The Tower and Brighton Beach British Airways i360

Interior of the pod. British Airways i360

Brighton’s spectacular new visitor attraction, an elevated viewing platform, defies words. It’s not a skyscraper. It’s not a big wheel. It’s … “a doughnut on a stick” is the most accurate the locals have come up with yet.

Imagine a slender tower, 530ft high, on the waterfront, just opposite the mangled metal skeleton of a former attraction, the West Pier. Wrapped round it is a glass viewing pod, which slides up and down the pole every half hour, carrying 200-odd visitors for a new and different look at the sea, the town and as far as the South Downs and Devil’s Dyke. Its official name is British Airways i360.

Those who don’t like heights, especially when surrounded by glass, will have stopped reading already, but for anyone else it’s a relaxing experience; the ascent and descent are so gentle as to be barely noticeable. Roofs gradually appear, then fall away. Normally hidden buildings can gradually be glimpsed: the railway station and the exotic domes of George IV’s Royal Pavilion.

Then the whole town falls away too, as the downs rise to the north, and chalk cliffs become visible to the east − even Beachy Head, though you might want binoculars to be sure of seeing it.

To the west is Hove Actually and, they say, the Isle of Wight (binoculars again); to the south, Brighton’s long pebbly beach with its grand hotels, busy Palace Pier and defunct West Pier, and what might be called an i180 view of the open waters of the English Channel.

Go up to a London observation platform like the Shard and all you’ll see is suburbs forever. What you can see from Brighton is geography, the make-up of Britain’s south-east. On a clear day, the range of vision is 26 miles.

All this was conceived and designed by Marks Barfield Architects, the people behind the slightly less high London Eye, and is something of an engineering feat. Described as the world’s first vertical cable car and slenderest tower (because it’s about 40 times as high as it is wide), it gets customers up to 450 feet on each 20-minute “flight” − 30 minutes after 6pm. The whole lot weights 1350 tons.

The word “flight” hints at why British Airways is sponsoring it. Indeed, there are numerous echoes of BA in the i360 experience.

  • The arrivals level is separate from the departure level: you board on an open-air deck at street level, but return a storey lower, handy for the shop and the beach. (And for a restaurant, due to open in September.)
  • The loos in the main building are unisex, so don’t go looking for male and female signs.
  • As with airline schedules, flight times aren’t quite as indicated: five minutes or more of your 20 may be spent embarking and disembarking. You stay about five minutes sitting at the highest point before the pod comes down again.
  • There’s a bar on board. It isn’t free, but it specialises in local produce: Nyetimber sparkling wine from Sussex, Harvey’s ale from Lewes, Brighton Gin, South Downs water.
  • Want to change the time of a flight you’ve booked? It’ll cost you a £10 administration fee, not much less than the original ticket.
  • Photography is better than through the average plane window, but not perfect: the curved glass means you get a lot of reflections. Best thing is to hold your camera as close to the glass as you can.
  • You’re asked to arrive half an hour early; you may have to take off belts and shoes at security − this didn’t happen to me, thank goodness, but my bag was searched − and then you just sit around, if you can get one of the 20 or so deckchairs. In practice, these seem to be grabbed by the young and fit. There’s a limited number of seats in the pod itself, but it does accommodate wheelchairs. If the main deck is too hot, cold or wet the plan is to use the covered lower deck for boarding as well as exiting.

The aim of the project, as with iconic buildings everywhere, is the Bilbao Effect: civic regeneration through tourism. A shame perhaps that after hours the pod will be resting at ground level and the doughnut on a stick will be just … a stick. The basic adult price is £15, but there are discounts for advance online booking (and a charge for phone booking), children, students, Brighton residents, and the over-60s. Fast-track and annual tickets are available.

The i360 is open between 10am and 10pm in summer (8pm in winter), closing an hour later on Fridays and Saturday; closed on December 25 and for a couple of weeks’ maintenance in January. As the pod is available for private hire, you might want to check there won’t be a wedding on when you want to fly.