Fed up of over-crowded tubes and buses in London ?
Tired of being squashed ?
Tired of standing, strap-hanging ?
Too tired to pound those pavaments for hours on foot ?
Take heart – there is another way to see this amazing city.
There are any number of big ferries, complete with bars and restaurants and multi-lingual commentaries and all the usual tourist paraphernalia, sailing up and down the Thames, but on a recent visit we decided to do things differently.
Opt rather for the commuter boat, part of the London Transport system. Mothers bringing children home from school; office workers from Canary Wharf, one of the financial hubs of London; a couple of commuters with cool fold-up bikes that they tucked under their arms as they boarded – we were actually the odd ones out, map of the river in hand, cameras to the fore, as we caught the boat at Embankment Pier.
In the long run-up to this summer’s London Olympic Games, there has been a massive regeneration of the River Thames and the surrounding areas. Formerly disused and abandoned wharves have been turned into breath-taking apartment blocks; fashionable restaurants and galleries have opened up, all against the backdrop of the eye-catching shapes of gleaming new office blocks.
The great thing about traveling by river is that it is definitely more relaxing than standing in a crowded bus or train, but what you may not expect is the speed with which these boats bomb off down the river from one stop to another.
Depending on the type of ticket you have, you can hop on and off all day at leisure, “doing” most of the city’s major attractions from the river, from Hampton Court to the London Eye and Tate Modern, from the Houses of Parliament to the Tower of London, sailing from one sight to the next.
The regeneration of the east of London allows you to see historic monuments from what was almost certainly their original, intended perspective. Arriving at the Tower of London by boat lets you look at the structure in a more relaxed way than from the busy road on the far side, where coaches park, disgorging tourists.
Far more fun to arrive by boat, trying to imagine how differently the Tower and the river must have looked in the 15th and 16th centuries when prisoners destined for the dreaded Tower of London were brought by barge along the Thames to the infamous Traitors' Gate. As the boats with the condemned passed under London Bridge, the heads of recently executed prisoners would have been displayed on pikes.
On a lighter note, there is a story that all wicked Londoners like to tell about London Bridge – how it was sold to a naïve American in 1967 for over £1 million. The story goes that the buyer thought he was getting the much more famous and iconic Tower Bridge, but ended up with London Bridge instead. Sadly for the story tellers, it’s only partly true: the old bridge is in Arizona, but apparently the buyer knew full well what he was getting.
You sail past the reconstructed Shakespearean Globe Theatre and historic ships such as HMS Belfast, see the silhouette of St Paul’s Cathedral on the horizon and then, one of the most beautiful sights the city has to offer, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, whose magnificent architecture was clearly meant to be seen first from the water.
For our journey, we hopped off at The O2 and joined a huge throng of people – hundreds of mainly young, city types all out for a drink or for dinner in this enormous, stylish dome. It was crowded, with queues forming early outside the more popular bars and cafés – and all this on a Monday evening. If ever you wanted visible proof of the success of the development of the east end of London, this was it.
What is wonderful about travelling this way is that you get to see vignettes of normal river life: at the QE11 pier, we watched a man in a little wooden rowing boat puttering along the river. Other fishing boats were moored behind him, as well as a few über-smart yachts, and behind him, towering over it all, the panorama of the 2012 Olympic village.