The London Eye

This year marks the London Eye’s 20th birthday, which is quite impressive considering this iconic landmark was only supposed to be a temporary attraction (which funnily enough is exactly how the Eiffel Tower started out), and it is now the UK’s most popular paid attraction, with 3.75 million visitors a year.

The story began in 1993 when husband-and-wife team David Marks and Julia Barfield entered a competition held by the Times newspaper and the Architecture Foundation, to find the best project to welcome in the new century.

The couple had been married since 1981, and they set up their own practice in London in 1990 with the ambition to design great buildings and structures the world would remember.

The idea of a wheel came to them because, they felt it resembled the shape of a clock, and thus it fitted symbolically with the idea of time and the approaching millennium.

They also wanted to create something that people could enjoy and be a part of the experience. The idea was to give the impression of London slowly unfolding, revealing the journey to the viewer as the wheel rotates.

Initially, the wheel was to have 60 compartments (a nod to time, minutes and seconds), but this number was eventually reduced to 32, to represent each of London’s 32 boroughs, with each one holding a maximum of 25 people. 

Each capsule was to be numbered, with #13 being missed out because of the superstition so often associated with that number, in the end the capsules went from 1 to 12, and from 14 to 33.

After all this, the judges didn’t like their project. In fact, they did not like any of the entries, so for the husband and wife team it was back to square one. Thankfully they didn’t give up there.

Despite a number of opponents to the project who thought the wheel would spoil the view of the Houses of Parliament, and would end up being a white elephant, David and Julia eventually managed to win the support of the Evening Standard newspaper. Bolstered by this support and with British Airways and Merlin entertainment on board as partners, the London Eye finally got the go ahead in 1996.

The biggest hurdle was to give people an unobstructed view of London from inside the cabins, and the only solution was to put the capsules on the outside, something that had never been done before.  

Building work began in 1998, and the 70 million pound wheel was constructed in sections and transported along the Thames on barges, to be assembled lying flat on platforms.

Once it was complete, it was slowly lifted into an upright position (at a rate of two degrees per hour) with the aid of steel cables.

Not everything went smoothly. At one point, they were lifting the wheel into position when a cable snapped and the eye got stuck. To add insult to injury, Richard Branson of Virgin Airways had an air balloon fly over the site with the words: “BA can’t get it up!” 

Well, eventually BA did get it up!!

On New Years Eve, in 1999, thousands of people gathered on the banks of the Thames to see the amazing firework display and welcome in the new Millennium.

The then Prime Minister Tony Blair fired a laser to officially inaugurate the Millennium Wheel, after which what is now known as the London Eye performed a full rotation without passengers. 

Because of some technical issues, it wasn’t until March 2000 that passengers could actually get on board and ride the Eye, but once it got going, it proved a great success.  

Despite its triumphs, there was still the problem of the 5-year lease, after which the Eye was to be dismantled and moved elsewhere. However, it was so incredibly popular that it was given permanent status, and now it is there to stay.

The London Eye is only one of many of Julia and Mark’s successful ventures, as they also created the i360 viewing platform in Brighton, and the treetop walkway at Kew gardens, much loved by children of all ages.

It is a shame that Julia won’t be able to celebrate the Eye’s twentieth birthday with her husband Mark, because he very sadly died of cancer in 2017, aged just 64.

2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the London Eye, and there have been talks to install a plaque at the site in Mark’s memory.

Despite the fact that the Eye is no longer London’s highest vantage point (having been surpassed by the 244m high observation deck in the Shard), it still affords magnificent views of London and the surrounding area. On a clear day one can even see as far as Windsor Castle, which is 25 miles to the West!

The famed architect Richard Rogers wrote: “The London eye has done for London what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, which is to give it a symbol and to let people climb above the city and look back down on it. Not just specialists or rich people, but everybody. That’s the beauty of it: it is public and accessible, and it is in a great position at the heart of London”.

Interesting facts about the London Eye:

1) It costs roughly £30 a trip, and takes 35 minutes to complete a full rotation. It can carry up to 800 people when at full capacity.

2) It was first owned by British Airways (hence why trips on the eye were referred to as ‘flights’), and then belonged to Merlin Entertainment and subsequently Edf Energy. It now belongs to Coca Cola.

3) When it was built, it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, but now lies in fourth place behind the following new kids on the block:

1. The High Roller in Las Vegas (2014) is the tallest at 168m.

2. The Singapore flyer (2008) stands at 165m 

3. The Star of Nanchang (2006) is 158m tall.

4) The London Eye is the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel, which means that the capsules do not hang below like in all other Ferris wheels, but they are outside the wheel rim.

5) Its component parts came from all over Europe: The wheel was built in the Netherlands using UK steel; the iron spindle and the hub were cast by Skoda in the Czech republic; the cables came from Italy; the capsules were constructed by cable cars experts in the French Alps; and the curved laminated glass for the cabins came from Venice.

6) Special LED lighting allows the London Eye to light up in many spectacular colours. For instance, it was lit in red, white and blue for Prince William and Kate’s wedding, and it was pink in 2005 to celebrate the UK’s first gay civil partnership.

7) More than 5000 people have got engaged on the London Eye (this will set the loving couple back £360, but at least a bottle of champagne is included), not to mention that the Eye has presided over 500 weddings within its capsules since it opened, at the average cost of £3500. The first was in 2001.

8) It has been used as a pop-up restaurant on several occasions. Chefs like Gordon Ramsey for example, served meals in one of the capsules for 10 people, each guest paying £30.000 for the privilege.

My name is Cosetta Zanobetti-Lawlor, and I have worked in the tourism industry for over thirty years.
Born and brought up in Italy, I got a BA Honours degree in History of Art at Birkbeck University, taught English as a foreign language for several years, and I got a PGCE to teach Modern Foreign Languages.
In 1987 I qualified as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide, and I have been working in London as a freelance guide ever since.
The Blue Badge is the highest guiding qualification in the Uk, and it allows me to take visitors where unqualified guides cannot go, includi you Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Windsor Castle.
I am a member of the Institute of Tourist Guiding, the Association of Professional Tourist Guides, the Guild of Registered Tour Guides, and I am fully insured.
I specialise in Art History tours, and garden tours as gardens are my passion.
I offer personalised tours, walking tours, children tours, coach tours, and I can arrange everything for you from coach hiring, to booking hotels.

Have a look at my website: