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…