One of the fun things about travel is seeing new things. Or more specifically seeing old things that are new to you. Climbing tight spiral staircases to see the view from the top isn’t high on many people’s lists, but an adventurous few make the climb to see what’s up there. I had this experience twice while I was in the United Kingdom this year, once in London and the other time in Scotland. Both offer similar experiences and yet are completely different. I recommend doing each climb if you’re fit and aren’t afraid of heights.
The Great Fire destroyed over 13,000 homes and 87 churches in London in 1666, leaving upwards of 130,000 people homeless. The re-build of the city was based on the design of Robert Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren. These two men designed a monument commemorating the Great Fire, which was built of Portland Stone in the shape of a doric column with a spiral staircase inside running to an observation deck on top, and crowned with a gilded urn of fire. I climbed up the 311 first thing in the morning on one of my last days in London, appreciating the stunning views of the city from up there. The spiral staircase is easy to navigate, but you’ll feel it as you climb up. I managed to get to the top without taking a break, but my heart rate was elevated when I finally reached the viewing platform.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Monument is that it was completed in 1677, a century before America declared independence from Great Britain. Think about the generations of people who have made the climb up those same stairs! If you take a low number, maybe ten per day, multiplied by the number of days The Monument has been open for the public, you arrive at 1.2 million people who have made the climb to the top. More realistic is a number topping 3-5 million. All climbing a staircase ’round and ’round to the top; an adventure shared across generations. Imagine the stories in that collection of people. And now my daughter and I are on that list, with our own stories.
Meanwhile, in Scotland at the head of Loch Shiel, there’s another monument that’s been standing stoically for generations. The Glenfinnan Monument, built in 1815, commemorates the 1745 Jacobite Rising. It’s topped with a statue of a lone Jacobite soldier looking north towards the Highlands. This climb wasn’t as high as The Monument – it’s 18 meters, or about 60 feet tall, but it has it’s own challenges. The spiral staircase is more like a tight and twisting ladder spinning you to the top step-by-step. I’m 6′-4″ tall and felt like I was in a gun barrel spinning about to the top, where I emerged to see this moss and lichen covered Jacobite ignoring me as he’s ignored countless climbers before me.
Where London has grown up above The Monument, squeezing it on all sides and shrinking the panoramic view, the Glenfinnan Monument offers the same view today as it did in 1815. Stunning views of Loch Shiel, Sgùrr Ghiubhsachain and other surrounding mountains. Turning your gaze towards where our friend the Jacobite is focused on, you see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous by the Harry Potter movies, making its elegant sweeping curve. This was a lovely view indeed, even with a bit of rain and fog playing games. Aside from the paved road, the Glenfinnan Visitor Center, a few new buildings scattered about and the Viaduct, this view hasn’t changed since this monument was erected. It offers its own whispers to the past, and was worth the climb.