Against the flow

Can I really have worked 10 weeks of my 6 month London contract already? When I signed on the dotted line I committed not only to do work style things for my employer but I committed to myself to make the most of my tenure in the heart of the city.

So far I’ve not done too badly. I ticked off all the major landmarks in one crazy day, have visited multiple food markets (surprise), explored Greenwich, enjoyed a cable car journey from the O2 to Docklands and taken in a show (Spamalot). Now it’s time for something completely different.

A completely different commute
A completely different commute

My commutes have mostly been on foot and it’s clear that nobody enjoys the rush-hour ordeal of crossing London on the tube or by bus. Now though there’s another option and I have to give it a go even though it means intentionally lodging further from work

River bus route mapClick to enlarge

The Thames river bus service consists of three core routes running between Putney in the west to Woolwich in the east. There’s a stopping point at St Georges Wharf near my work so I have chosen to stay over at Wandsworth 4 miles away where there’s also a stopping point on the RB6 commuter service. On my first morning I stroll down to Wandsworth Pier which sits on a pretty arc of the river. It’s a peaceful haven by London standards with no high rise buildings in the vicinity, alien green things that I’m going to call “trees” and the welcome sound of – well – nothing really.

Oasis of calm
Oasis of calm

The inevitable chrome and steel of riverside living behind me holds no appeal but a small community of house boat dwellers clings limpet-like to the pier and I can’t help thinking that if you really must live in the capital this has to be one of the better ways to do it.

No flood risk for these homes
No flood risk for these homes

I wonder if the assembled commuters are sharing my enjoyment of a duck formation skimming along some 18 inches above the waterline or whether they are mentally preparing for their first meeting of the day within some crass corporate edifice in Moorgate.

Suits
Suits

The rumble of twin turbines reaches a crescendo before tailing off as the RB6 commuter service from Putney to Embankment coasts into the landing pier against the flow of the tide. Meanwhile the tide of grey files down the wooden gangway, and we’re off. My compatriots bought tickets on shore but I am paying by Oyster card and pop inside to get a ticket.

Plugged in but turned off
Plugged in but turned off

It’s clear that others aren’t appreciating the romance of this journey. Stony faces are glued to smart phones or buried deep in the FT. I head out back to the covered deck to feel the wind on my face and watch west London recede in the wash.

The glamorously named Smugglers Way solid waste transfer station disfigures the view towards Wandsworth, but at least it clears up a question I had been mulling over for some time.

Essentially a large bonfire
A load of rubbish

Now I know the content and purpose of the container laden barges seen repeatedly wending their way past Westminster in the preceding weeks. Perhaps they are loaded with shredded MPs expenses, Iraq war dossiers or some evidence of the next scandal we haven’t yet heard about.

Mystery solved
Mystery solved

After the passing of Wandsworth bridge I’m almost hurled overboard as the catamaran surges forward at pace. When passing moored boats or beneath bridges the boat calmly tootles along but in clear stretches the skipper opens up to perhaps 30 knots. These vessels are packed with power but I’m seeing a trend here…

All London transport drivers (boat, bus, tube) are obliged to only drive fast or drive slowly with no gap in between. Have they all been trained on Scalextric? Are we skittles in a game of human ten-pin-bowling? This could explain why you see so few older people in the capital.

test
Hold on tight…

Our first stop is at Chelsea harbour and it’s good to see stereotypes being enforced as the Royal Barge is moored here, without any security it seems. I didn’t watch any of the Queen’s diamond jubilee but if I had tuned into her Thames pageant then I expect to have heard Nicholas Witchell smarmily describing this regal runabout in squirmingly detailed terms.

Lizzie uses this for her trips to Tesco
Lizzie uses this for her trips to Tesco

A terrace of houseboats lines the Chelsea waterfront. My research suggests they are no cheaper than the bricks and mortar (and marble) around these parts plus the mooring fees are likely to be stratospheric.

Waterside living
Waterside living

Battersea bridge comes and goes before we moor again under the attractive iron Albert Bridge. Anchored here is my favourite vessel on this route. Mouette sits so gracefully and it’s easy to imagine some evocative former life for this retired lady. It’s satisfying to discover that Mouette is French for sea gull – most appropriate.

Classy sea gull
Classy sea gull

Eastwards into the morning sun and once we have passed Chelsea Bridge the entrance to the Grosvenor Canal glides by to port. These days this entrance only serves the parking (ego) needs of yacht owning flat dwellers but once it extended through Pimlico and onto Victoria and was used to transport waste out of the city.

Where there was muck there's now brass
Where there was muck there’s now brass

The familiar reaches of Nine Elms hove into view. The stretch around Battersea is either being transformed into a much needed densely populated centre for key-worker accommodation or a ghost town for land-banking foreign investors depending on your view. The issue of wealthy investors buying property off-plan, leaving it empty and then selling at a 20% profit a year later is fuelling a crazy rise in property prices and the question isn’t if the property bubble will burst but when.

The foreign land bank known as Nine Elms
A river bank in more than one sense

Battersea power station is going nowhere in this property boom. I wonder if it would be so well known were it not for that famous Pink Floyd album cover.

Weather report: mild, high air pollution, 5% chance of pigs
Weather report: mild, high air pollution, 5% chance of pigs

More striking are the few remnants of the industrial underpinnings of this stretch of the river. Another strata of social history is about to be replaced it seems.

How cranes used to look before the skyscraper boom
How cranes used to look before the skyscraper boom

I’m off at the next stop. St George’s Wharf at Vauxhall was opening in 2011 by bungling Boris Johnson. He probably fell in. As I alight the disease prevention notice seems more suited to a coastal port than the deep reaches of the Thames.

You need a doctors certificate to disembark
You need a doctors certificate to disembark

A steep climb up to terra firma and my commute is finished. It has been a blast, stress-free and invigorating.

Well that was fun!
Well that was fun!

…nothing that a day at work can’t change


Roll on 10 hours and I’m back at the wharf for my return trip. The failing sun is in the west and my mind awash with matters of the day. How will the journey home stack up for a tired office worker who just wants to get home?

In a different light
In a different light

There’s a brisk post-work trade in coffee, beer and cocktails at the waterside café.

Cocktails and boat trips: This could be Miami Vice
Cocktails and power boats: This could be Miami Vice

Tempting though that is I’ve an evening to enjoy so I wait cocktailess for my service.

Imagine a packed bus or tube journey now
Imagine a packed bus or tube journey now

The outward trip was on the RB6 service but this return leg is on RB5.

Indoors only on the RB5
Indoors only on the RB5

That’s important because unlike RB6 the RB5 boat hasn’t got an outside deck so you have to sit inside and watch the world go by through dirty perspex windows.

Not quite as much fun behind the perspex
Not quite as much fun behind the perspex

The crew seem to be very international, rather like you might expect on some south pacific merchant ship. Should one worry about the threat of Somali pirates in these waters? An entertaining game is to watch the deck hand lassoing a bollard when drifting in to moor. Usually they are John Wayne accurate but occasionally the rope ends up in the water and there’s probably some laughing and point deductions going on in the cabin.

Urban cowboy
Urban cowboy

A journey inside RB5 isn’t as fun as on the deck of RB6 – something to bear in mind if you want to enjoy the full experience – but when I set foot back onto Wandsworth pier it all makes sense.

[no words needed]
no words needed
I notice the difference in tidal height. The floating walkway is fairly level whereas the morning descent was markedly steeper.


If you want a stress free commute in London and the river boat stops either end of your commute then this is an experience I would thoroughly recommend. There is something about the river that anchors this brash self-obsessed city. It also attracts a quality of light that draws your eye in any weather at any time of day or night. Only this can explain why, after stepping on shore, I walked in precisely the opposite direction of my lodgings to capture a full moon from Wandsworth bridge.

Full moon at the end of a full day
Full moon at the end of a full day

And that’s the magic of the river: when you commute by boat you are thinking about the journey and not the destination. Unless you are wearing a suit…

Mean Time In Greenwich

When my visit to London was at a formative stage one of the hotels I was looking at was situated in Greenwich so I did a little surfing to find out about the locale. In the end I opted for a scandalously cheap deal in the heart of the city but a seed of interest had been planted in Greenwich so I availed myself of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to find out more. It’s almost worth it for a trip on the fabulous DLR – a driverless transit system first conceptualised in meccano by my uncle in 1962.

Docklands Light Railway
Docklands Light Railway

Sometimes you visit a new place with some expectations in mind. Greenwich with its prestigious World Heritage Site status is the home of the Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark not to mention the small matter of the Prime Meridian. How typical of my travels then to spend a highly fulfilling day in the town without seeing any of the aforementioned. My intention was to visit each of these in turn but the bloody incessant rain and preservation work on the historic vessel led me towards some drier alternatives.

Greenwich has a long established maritime and royal history. The Danes sailed up the Thames in the 11th century and moored in the deep waters here before, understandably, invading Kent. Henry VII chose to site his throne here at the Palace of Placentia and Queens Mary and Elizabeth were born here. When this was eventually demolished the replacement buildings were intended to provide Charles II with his new palace but plan that fell through (the builders blamed the architect, who blamed the client, who blamed Kevin McCloud) and instead a royal naval college was established.

Royal Naval College
Royal Naval College

A University and a music college occupy some of the imposing waterfront buildings while two magnificent domed structures remain open to the public.

Domes of the Chapel and Painted Hall
Domes of the Chapel and Painted Hall

The interior of the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul surprised me with it’s extensive intricate detailing. Almost every surface seemed to be sculpted by master craftsmen and I would imagine it had fine accoustics.

Chapel interior
Chapel interior

I was equally impressed by the interior of the Painted Hall. This beautiful chamber with its huge painted walls, where Nelson’s body lay in state 200 years ago, was deemed too opulent for use as a seaman’s refectory as originally envisaged.

Top Table at the Painted Hall
Top Table at the Painted Hall

It served as naval art gallery for some time but today it is primarily a (free) tourist attraction although I can’t help thinking it would make a fine filming location for some posh period banqueting sequence. A little research reveals that the site has indeed served as a film set on numerous occasions.

Hogwarts banquet hall
Hogwarts banquet hall

A peek outside tells me it’s still raining cats and dogs. Any excuse then to visit the Old Brewery, bolted onto Tourist Information centre and home to the ingeniously named Meantime brewery. The poor weather has advantages after all.

Old Brewhouse
Old Brewhouse

The main draw for me today was always going to be the National Maritime Museum. I felt that there was a fairly good balance of display items and information covering a wide range of topics. Themes included the evolution of military ship design, historical navigation aides and nautical exploration above and below the waves.

The displays I found most engrossing were the nostalgic toy boat exhibition, the gloriously evocative 1960’s cruise liner promotional videos and the all-encompassing ship simulator where you could take the helm of a large vessel and gleefully ram it at full speed into the jetty.

Implacable, 1800
Implacable, 1800

A massive section of the Implacable dominates one of the ground floor walls. Launched by the French navy in 1800 she was captured by the British navy and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. At the end of her active military service she served as a training vessel for 80 years until the 1940s.

Another eye catching highlight was Miss Britain III – sadly just a boat. But not just any boat – she was the first single engined power boat to exceed 100mph, reaching 111mph in 1933.

Miss Britain III, 1933
Miss Britain III, 1933

The museum has a lot more to offer and I could probably have spent half a day there. I won’t begrudge the basic catering facilities as an extensive new wing is due to open next year with radically improved facilities but I do question the total failure to mention two of Britain’s greatest seafaring captains. Perhaps this omission will be rectified by the new extension with dedicated galleries to Pugwash and Birdseye.

With my time in Greenwich drawing to a close I wanted to visit one last “attraction”. Perhaps this is common knowledge but I previously had no idea you could still walk under the Thames. In Greenwich in 2011 you can do just this in the space of 5 minutes via the Greenwich foot tunnel. For some reason the idea of walking under a river really appeals to me.

Greenwich foot tunnel
Greenwich foot tunnel

By the time I re-emerge from my riverside burrow the feeble sun has slunk beyond the horizon and a damp haze hangs moodily over Canary Wharf, dominating the skyline beyond the Isle Of Dogs on the far bank.

Docklands
Docklands

Greenwich has seen these days on many occasions and sailors of yore would head down the cobbled gas-lit streets towards welcoming hostelries like The Trafalgar Tavern, The Spanish Galleon or The Gipsy Moth. Tonight that’s not for me – I’m catching an automated glass space age ship towards that city of lights 3 miles and 300 years to the north.