Louise Alexander takes to the Thames to conjure up a perfect day out taking in many of the capital’s iconic attractions… The great River Thames flows through the heart of London and harbours much of the city’s history, as well as providing a very pleasant alternative highway, giving the crowds and delays of the tube a wide berth. It’s a tidal river, rising and falling as much as eight metres between high and low tides and although it was once the source of London’s “Great Stink” in 1858, with stretches even declared biologically dead in 1957, today the Thames is one of the cleanest rivers in Europe, the result of several fantastic regeneration and conservation projects; in summer it sparkles enticingly in the sunshine.
I started my tour at Westminster, crossing to the south bank of the river via Westminster Bridge which provides a fabulous vantage point for the Houses of Parliament and Big. There is plenty to keep you entertained around Waterloo, from the Sealife London Aquarium for the kids to a ride on the London Eye, one of the world’s highest ferris wheels, and afterwards you can take a break and relax in the newly refreshed waterside Jubilee Gardens. Heading east along the Thames Path, take a stroll past the street entertainers and the second hand book market tucked under Waterloo Bridge. The South Bank is one of London’s most vibrant focal points, and as home to the world famous Southbank Centre it’s a must see for lovers of the arts. It’s worth checking out what’s on as the Hayward Gallery has a long history of presenting work by the world’s most innovative artists and there are often free photography exhibitions in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. If you’ve found that it’s already time for lunch or a drink there is a great range of eateries and cafes along the river here. Alternatively you can browse the mouth-watering stalls at the Real Food Market behind the Southbank Centre for a tasty snack or some picnic fare. Halfway between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge you’ll also find Gabriel’s Wharf, packed with cute independent shops and some great places for lunch – I can recommend the Gourmet Pizza Co.
Next up is Tate Modern, Britain’s national gallery of international modern art. Admission is free, except for special exhibitions, and there is a fabulous gift shop too. If more art doesn’t tickle your fancy you might prefer to take a detour over to the north side of the river. The Millennium footbridge leads from outside the gallery straight to St Paul’s Cathedral, whose dome has dominated the London skyline for over 300 years. The awe-inspiring century interior and crypt houses tombs and memorials to Nelson, Churchill, Florence Nightingale and Samuel Johnson. You can climb to the Golden Gallery to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views across London, or an alternative vantage point can be accessed for free at the top of the classy One New Change shopping district nearby.
Back on the south side, continuing along the Thames Path you come to Bankside, an area rich in history being one of the oldest settlements in Britain, dating back over 6,000 years. Outside the jurisdiction of the City, it became a hub for ‘stewhouses’ (brothels), animal-baiting pits and public theatres. The Rose, the Swan, the Globe and the Hope were the four Bankside playhouses of the Tudor era, and some of England’s greatest writers and players, including Shakespeare, lived and worked here. Following industrial decline after the Second World War Bankside remained largely undiscovered, but its recent renaissance now makes it a prime visitor destination – and one of my favourite spots in the capital. Next to the fantastic reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe you’ll find some elegant early 18th century houses while further along is The Anchor, the sole survivor of the riverside inns that existed here in Shakespeare’s time, and where the diarist Samuel Pepys took refuge and watched the city burn during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
From Bankside Pier, hop on a boat, (the Thames Clippers River Bus) over to the Tower of London to snap a photo with a Beefeater (or Yeoman Guard) and explore 1,000 years of history at the city’s fortress, originally built by William the Conqueror but perhaps more famous as the final destination for traitors before losing their heads. Approaching from the river you’ll be able to glimpse the infamous traitor’s gate. You can take another boat from here (Thames Clippers have a River Roamer ticket offering unlimited hop on, hop off travel) for a cruise under Tower Bridge, past Shad Thames, Wapping, and the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, to Greenwich. You could spend an entire day exploring this Royal Borough, parts of which can feel a bit like a rural village that somehow ended up in the big smoke. It’s home to a fabulous range of maritime museums and the Royal Observatory, but I’d recommend a stroll through the beautiful waterside Old Royal Naval College following by some relaxation in beautiful Greenwich Park, taking in the view of the city and the river form the top of the hill. Afterwards you might like to meander through Greenwich Markets, where you’ll find some great street food. Alternatively if you think you deserve a treat, Inside on Greenwich South Street is a good choice for dinner, or for a sweet treat, Black Vanilla gelateria is perfect. For the evening, you could also take the boat on to North Greenwich for a show at The O2, or to climb across the iconic music venue’s roof, Up at The O2. Or you could simply enjoy the Thames Clippers ride back into central London sitting on the rear deck and taking in the views in the evening light. If you’ve managed to squeeze all this into one day you’ll likely be exhausted, but it really just goes to show how much there is on offer in this city – and this only scratches the surface.
Useful websites to help you plan a day out along the river in London include: www.southbanklondon.com, www.thamesclippers.com, www.visitbankside.com, www.visitgreenwich.org.uk, www.ornc.org.uk, and www.visitlondon.com