First-time visitors to London often stick to the beaten path, remaining encompassed by the comforting confines of zone one. But follow the River Thames and there's much to be found.
My first experience with the Thames Clipper sees me boarding near the Tower of London, watching the coffee-coloured water of the River Thames swirl past as I flash my River Roamer pass at the attendant. I settle into a seat by the window and gaze at London’s waterside developments as they drift past, struck by the architectural repurposing that has transformed the warehouses and dockside facilities of old into desirable, modern apartments and penthouses. It’s easy to forget the river as you browse the market at Covent Garden or stroll through Hyde Park, but much of the Capital’s development has relied on this arterial waterway.
We soon pull in to North Greenwich, home of the Emirates Air Line, the UK’s first urban cable car. The gondola cabins arc up to the 90-metre midpoint, offering superb views of the Thames Barrier on one side, and the O2 Arena on the other. Familiar landmarks, such as the Shard and the office high-rises of Canary Wharf pierce the skyline, while less visible developments, like the Olympic Park, are outlined as the gondola makes its way over the river.
I ride the Line both ways to give equal attention both up and downriver. It’s cold outside, but encased in glass, I'm protected from the buffeting gusts of wind. Returning to ground level, the crisp breeze numbs my fingers, so I stop at CRAFT London, one of the many trendy eateries that have sprung up around the O2. A deliciously strong latte warms me immediately and I nibble on a moist slice of honey and Earl Grey cake topped with moss-green pistachio frosting before catching the Clipper back to Canary Wharf.
I’m staying at the Four Seasons Canary Wharf, a lovely hotel perched on the water’s edge. The views from the spacious suite are incredible, particularly at night, when lights twinkle along the riverbanks. There’s no need to wander far to find dinner either. Canary Wharf is packed with options, ranging from quick bites to extended a la carte menus. I remember this area from years ago, when it was a quiet collection of offices. Now it is bustling with activity, the multitude of transportation options ensuring a constant flow of visitors.
Post-dinner, I relax in the suite, nibbling on the selection of berries and bite-sized chocolate tidbits that welcomed me. It may be winter outside, but I'm comfortably snug, moments from everything London has to offer.
The next morning, I make my way down the stairs just outside the hotel’s entrance to again board the Thames Clipper, alighting at Greenwich, where the ferry docks right by the impressive Old Royal Naval College. I find my friend Judy here, among the weekend visitors thronging the open courtyard around the Cutty Sark, the clipper’s trio of masts dominating the skyline.
We take a closer look at this beautifully restored piece of maritime history. Cutty Sark visited every major port in the world through the course of her working life, sailing under both the Red Ensign and the Portuguese flag. She arrived at her current resting place in Greenwich in 1954 and was carefully restored back to her tea clipper appearance, before opening to the public. Inside, the ship is packed with interactive exhibits, designed to stimulate the minds of children and adults alike, while underneath the immense keel, a café provides sustenance to visitors.
Outside, a food market has sprung up, offering a variety of innovative street eats, ranging from ramen burgers to rice balls. We snack on a pulled pork wrap as we wander towards the Painted Hall and Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College. The Painted Hall is magnificent, recognised as the greatest piece of decorative painting in England. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, it has been described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK’. The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul is no less impressive. The neo-classical masterpiece by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton features a Samuel Green organ and an altarpiece painted by Benjamin West.
Meandering to the Royal Observatory, we are sidetracked by Greenwich Market. The historic market is set within a World Heritage site and curiosities, artwork and jewellery abound on every stall. It is with reluctance that we keep our wallets closed, resisting expense. We have tickets to the Captured Starlight show at the planetarium, so we don’t have time to linger.
We stride through Greenwich Park, following the walkways to the UK’s only planetarium, adjacent to the Royal Observatory Greenwich. After a brief introduction to astronomy by one of the Royal Observatory astronomers, we lie back in our seats to admire the stars and some of the breath-taking images that made the shortlist for this year's Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, learning about the objects and phenomena behind the images.
It is somehow ironic that we are running out of time at the place that time begins. We visit the Prime Meridian line, straddling the hemispheres, before entering Flamsteed House, the original Observatory building at Greenwich, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 on the instructions of King Charles II. We walk through the apartments where the Astronomers Royal and their families lived and worked and admire John Harrison’s historical time-keepers, in an exhibition that outlines how the problem of longitude was resolved. It would be easy to spend more time here, but closing time is announced, so we make our way down the hill to The Guildford Arms for dinner before boarding the Thames Clipper back to the doorstep of the Four Seasons Canary Wharf.
The sky is grey the next morning and we're reluctant to leave the warm confines of the hotel. We linger over breakfast, dallying over Westferry Eggs, a local take on Eggs Benedict. When we can delay no longer, we check out, leaving our luggage in storage while we explore the river one last time on a sightseeing cruise with City Cruises. We chug west around the bends of the River Thames, stopping at Westminster and the London Eye, while enjoying the impromptu commentary by the crew.
There’s so much more to London than the Square Mile and the shopping enclaves of Oxford Street. The grand old River Thames is bordered by some of the city's most spectacular sights, from the Tower of London to the historic pubs of Wapping, Shakespeare's Globe, Westminster and the Shard. The square mile may have once been the beating heart of the Capital, but the River Thames is the artery that has given the city life.