Why Taking the High Ground Has Always Elevated the Senses

Article excerpt


Looking down from the Shard the other day, I found myself wondering about the history of looking down on things. Not metaphorically, of course - that is presumably as old as hominids - but literally, as I was doing, enjoying the 800ft gap between myself and the street below. There was a reminder that this isn't an exclusively modern pleasure some 600ft beneath me - in the form of the gilded teazle of flames that tops Sir Christopher Wren's Monument to the Great Fire of London. Boswell went up that in 1762, overcoming a panic attack to get to the top and recording shakily that it was "horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and its spires." But Boswell was relishing an ancient thrill even then. In a popular 17th century guide book, Justus Zinzerling tells visitors that "a fine view of the city is beheld from the lofty tower" of St Paul's (he also warns them to keep an eye out for the gibbeted thief on the outskirts of Sittingbourne). And in 1592, Frederick Duke of Wittenberg was taken up to the highest tower of Windsor Castle, where he carved his name in the roof lead - evidence that touristic vandalism has a long and distinguished history, too. In a lot of cases, one imagines, the entrance fee placard went up just a couple of minutes after the last stone was laid.

It's hard not to think that there's some biological imperative at work in our passion for this rentable and temporary supremacy - some ancient advantage to having a panoramic view of the surrounding land which flickers within us as we take the express elevator up to the viewing platform. Elevation has always been a privilege of the powerful and the wealthy, after all. They take the top rungs of the ladder, the upper echelons of the pecking order, and the penthouse suites in the tower block. So when you visit one of these attractions, there's a sense of borrowed grandeur in the perspective you get - which is further enhanced by your grasp of a spectacle that always evades you at ground level. …