Whenever a new tourist attraction is proposed somewhere it always comes with its supporters and detractors and the British Airways i360 was no different.
Architects of the flying doughnut, which towers over Brighton seafront in the UK, said the i360 would revitalise the area and that its modern design was a nod to the Grade I listed former pier it now stands in front of. However, those who were against the build said it would spoil the view of the area and become a blot on the landscape.
As the arguments raged on, slowly but surely the i360 began to take shape and over the months we’ve visited Brighton we’ve seen it continuing to grow, as various parts were shipped in from around the world. While I wasn’t really sure which side of the fence I was on, one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to go up it. Maybe it’s the journalist in me (and the fact that Brighton used to be my old reporting patch) but I always like to try things out so I can make my own opinion.
We were in luck, as my lovely in-laws bought us some tickets before the i360 had even officially opened and within weeks of its first flight (as sponsors British Airways like to call it) we were on board.
The British Airways i360 was designed by architects David Marks MBE and Julia Barfield MBE, who also created the London Eye and it’s easy to see some similarities between the two. The i360, which they have dubbed a ‘vertical pier’ moves slowly up to a height of 453ft allowing passengers to walk around its circular pod to experience the different views.
From the ground the world’s tallest moving observation tower (at 531 feet) is certainly impressive. Like it or loathe it, there’s no question that it now dominates the skyline. The ride has been built at what would have been the entrance to the West Pier (now derelict after a fire, but still one of Brighton’s most famous landmarks) and the two Italianate style toll houses which guarded the entrance to the pier when it opened in 1866 have been reconstructed, which is a nice nod to its past.
Admittedly when we visited things were very much still in their opening stages. The restaurant which sits underneath the i360 was closed for staff training, for example, and many of the contractor’s fences were still standing. However the shops in the surrounding arches were open for business and with the sun beaming down on us, there was a definite buzz in the air.
Flights take place every half an hour and are 20 minutes long (10 minutes up and 10 minutes down). We arrived 20 minutes early, as requested, and joined the queue to get in. After going through security (it really is like going to an airport) visitors wait on a decked area for the previous flight to descend. This gave us some time to check out the underside of the pod, which has been cleverly mirrored to provide reflections of the shoreline.
As the pod dropped the previous passengers off at the gift shop below, everyone rushed to the entrance gate to wait to get on. Mr A, who steadfastly refuses to queue for flights in airports, abided by his same rule and insisted we chill out in deckchairs until the very last minute.
As you board the ride you’re welcomed by staff dressed in British Airways uniforms who wish you a pleasant flight, while The Flower Duet from the opera Lakmé (made famous by a British Airways advert in 1989) blasts out over the loudspeakers. It’s all ‘very on brand’ as the marketers like to say.
The flight itself moved faster than I was expecting, gradually providing views across the city. We had got lucky with a beautifully sunny day and could see as far as the gorgeous greens of the South Downs to the west and the stunning white cliffs of Beachy Head (exactly the same height as the i360) to the east.
Closer to us, to the north, we were able to spot famous Brighton landmarks including the Royal Pavilion, Regency Square and North Laine. Our gift voucher had included an i360 guide (which can be purchased separately) that provided us with a foldout panoramic explanation of what we were seeing, which came in helpful as there are no explanation boards or commentary in the pod (although there is an app you can download).
The idea is that the passengers feel as though they are ‘walking on air’ and when you looked down it was easy to feel as though you were up in the clouds.
Maybe because we had the guide – or because we both know the city so well and were busy trying to locate the house I used to live in or where we’d been on our first date – the time seemed to fly by and before we’d even got all of the way around the pod we were already on the way back down again. We quickly made our way over to the final view, looking out to sea. This is the one I hadn’t really understood beforehand, what’s the point of just looking at a great expanse of water? But actually this turned out to be my favourite view; I loved the unique vantage point it gave of the West Pier, a structure I know and love, but have never experienced from that angle. I also realised that the sea is going to be the aspect which changes the most on different visits. A city will always look like a city, no matter what the weather. But only the sea can change completely, from moody raging waters to a calm blue expanse.
There is a bar in the centre of the pod, but to be honest I’m not sure it’s worth getting a drink as the flight itself is so short. All too soon we were back on solid ground, where visitors are led straight into the gift shop and a hard-sell for photo packs.
There’s still a few teething problems to iron out, but all in all I’m fully on board with the British Airways i360. Yes, it’s totally changed the landscape of Brighton seafront and its always going to stand out, but I guess the West Pier did back in its day too. Overall the flight reminded me of all of the things I love about this city. Usually I’m not a fan of flying, and I can’t wait to get off a plane, but my only complaint about this flight was that it was too short!
You can buy British Airways i360 tickets at britishairwaysi360.com