“The Thames is liquid history”, or so says Victorian politician John Burns. The longest river in Britain passes through and shapes the heart of the great city of London and has infected it with a maritime energy that land-locked metropoles often lack. Tidal, famously so, all the way up to Teddington Lock in the far west, the river has housed, employed and transported Londoners, structured their city, provided them with goods from all over the world and inspired two millennia of artists and writers. And even today, though the vast city docks have moved out to suburban Tilbury, there is still so much to see and do all along the river. Read on for a few ideas. Bold print will take you to a google maps page with a particular sight’s location.
Central London is a walker’s town. Condensed by history and necessity into what is only a couple of square miles, it is remarkably easy to find yourself travelling through several very distinct neighbourhoods in just ten minutes of strolling. So the first thing we advise you to do is to walk along a few of London’s great bridges. The most famous, naturally, is Tower Bridge - not to be confused with its rather bland neighbour, London Bridge. It links Shad Thames on the south side with the monumental Tower of London. Both of these are most certainly worth visiting. The Shad Thames area was once the largest complex of warehouses in the city, and the cobbled streets that run between and beneath these haunting structures now host a multitude of boutique restaurants and quirky shops - a real foodie paradise. The Tower of London on the northern bank is coming up to a thousand years old and within its thick walls are nestled the Crown Jewels. Need we say more?
Other bridges are worth visiting for a view of all the city. The crossings at Waterloo and Westminster are both excellent for panoramas of central, east and west London, and the Millennium footbridge gives an unspoiled vista of the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. Albert Bridge in Putney is lit up at night beautifully and is always a choice photo for snap-happy insta-travellers. The same goes for London Bridge. And from all of the above, you get a sense of being at the heart of a captivating, energetic, romantic city.
Rather than just looking at the Thames as you stand above it, you may want to get down to the water level and see the ancient landmarks rise around you. Well, you can. Use your Oyster card on the Thames Clipper river bus service to travel between Greenwich and Embankment. You can stop at Bankside for the Tate Modern, London Eye pier, Canary Wharf and many more. Not only is it a tremendously fun way to spend an afternoon, it’s also a very efficient way of travelling through London - no awkward tube trains to squeeze on to or hieroglyphic bus routes to memorise!
But perhaps your seasickness will get the better of you and you’re searching for a nautical experience on a slightly steadier deck. If so, take a trip to the HMS Belfast. You may have been asking yourself if Britain was pessimistically expecting the worst, given the presence of a seemingly battle-ready dreadnought moored in the heart of the capital, but the ship is no more than a floating museum, part of the Imperial War Museum suite. Having seen action in 40s and 50s, the Belfast now welcomes over a quarter of a million tourists every year in her permanent mooring between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Not far upstream on the bank outside Southwark Cathedral you can also see a faithful replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship in which Drake sailed around the world in the name of Elizabeth I. It’s a strange experience to see a four-hundred-year-old ship stranded within sight of The Shard, but the old-world charm of neighbouring Borough Market provides an appropriate context.
From the deck of the Belfast or one of the Clippers, you might spot the occasional sun-kissed tropical paradise overshadowed by a brooding set of monolithic concrete buildings. You are the looking at the Southbank Centre (and its accompanying Thamesside beach!). Built for the Festival of Britain - a “tonic for the nation” after the lean times of the war - it is now the largest arts complex in Europe. Situated between the Hungerford and Waterloo bridges, the Southbank Centre boasts world-class performance spaces for art, music and drama. The Royal Festival Hall is known particularly for the great value tickets on offer to see elite-level classical musicians. Elsewhere, the Hayward Gallery, recently reopened, is, aside from the Tate Modern, London’s best contemporary art gallery. Further downstream is the Globe Theatre, the home-away-from-home for any Shakespeare fan, and all around the area are many historic riverside pubs, such as The Swan. It’s also worth looking out for the book market tucked away under Waterloo Bridge, running every day of the week. But make sure you watch out for traffic - the massive weekly cyclists’ meet-up known as Critical Mass starts just around the corner. Join in if you’re feeling adventurous!
With the sun shining and the ties of suited workers loosening, London yawns and awakes for another gorgeous summer. There are few better places to spend it than along the sides of the river Thames.