London By Boat to Greenwich & Back - The Maritime Explorer


London By Boat to Greenwich & Back

I’ve been to London many times, but until recently I had never experienced London by boat which was a big mistake. Here’s why taking a trip down the Thames to Greenwich is a great way to spend a different kind of day in London.

The London transportation system is among the most extensive in the world and not surprisingly incorporates travel by water as well as on and under the land. All told there are  twenty-four stops on the public system that go from Putney in the west to Barking Riverside in the east. However, most people satisfy themselves with a journey from Westminster Station to Tower station which passes by many of the highlights of London by boat. This trip is also included as part of the hop on hop off bus tours that frequent the city.

All you need to get on is a valid Oyster card with enough credit for the length of trip you plan to take or you can buy single use tickets. These routes are plied by Uber Boat Thames Clippers which are catamarans that open up speed once you get past Canary Wharf. The only problem is that have only a small outdoor seating area at the rear. So they are cheaper and faster than the private London by boat tour operators, but you won’t get phots as good as those on the boats with open air seating.

It was a beautiful late September morning in London only a week after the Queen’s funeral and the entire city was still festooned with flowers, wreaths and other tributes to the late monarch. This is the Elizabeth Gate to Hyde Park.

Elizabeth Gate, Hyde Park

I was with my friend Don Harding and we had a free day before going to Oxford and then on to Scotland to join a group for a golf holiday. One place in London I had never been despite reading about it in many historical novels and seeing it in the movies, was the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. This was the place from where the British navy presided over the largest empire on earth.

We originally had planned to take the public transport boat from the Embankment station to Greenwich and then take the tube back, but quickly changed our plans once we realized how truly lovely it was seeing London by boat. So we took the Uber Boat from the Embankment to Greenwich and then returned via one of the private boat tours that depart regularly. It was a little more expensive, but definitely worth it for the unobstructed views. These boats also have washroom facilities, a bar and humorous narration about what you are seeing.

What follows is an amalgam of photos from both journeys starting off with the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral which is the first major monument you see heading towards Greenwich.

London by Boat

St. Paul's, London by Boat
St. Paul’s

The London by boat then continues past a number of London’s newest buildings including this one Londoners call the walkie-talkie building.

The Walkie Talkie

There is perhaps no site more associated with the Thames in London than the iconic Tower Bridge. Seeing it on a London by boat tour is a completely different experience than walking over it.

Tower Bridge, London by boat
Tower Bridge

Passing under it is something else.

Passing Under Tower Bridge

Of course right beside the Tower Bridge you have the Tower of London.

Tower of London

You get a fantastic look at the White Tower from the Thames.

The White Tower, London by Boat
The White Tower

After Tower Bridge there are miles and miles of former wharfage storehouses, many of which have been converted to waterfront condos and apartments. In other places the old buildings have been razed and new ones put up. Here is a contrast of the old and the new. The old are the traditional Thames River sailing barges that once plied the waters of the Thames estuary in the thousands, but now are largely a relic of the past. They once supplied London with the vital raw materials like stone, cement, brick, hay and grain until supplanted by the railways.

The Old & the New, London by Boat
The Old & the New

This a photo I took on the way back showing more of these sailing barges with modern London in the background including the famous Gherkin building.

Thames Sailing Barges

One thing I noticed while seeing London by boat was the complete absence of private boats. Apparently there is no prohibition on them, but the Thames is so busy and the tidal flow so challenging, that pleasure boating is really not a pleasure. That does not stop groups of oarsmen like these hardy chaps struggling to go upstream against a steady current.

Rowing Team, London by Boat
Rowing Team

After the catamaran opened up speed it took very little time to reach our destination at Greenwich. There is actually a lot to see here including the Royal Naval College, the Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and the charming old town of Greenwich. We decided to tour the Naval College first then have lunch.

Walking up from the Greenwich river station you come across the famous clipper ship Cutty Sark which is part of the museum complex at Greenwich. It is the sole surviving original clipper ship in the world. These ships were the greyhounds of their time, built to make the voyage to China and back in times unheard of until then. Many consider the clipper ships to be the most beautiful sailing vessels ever built and seeing the majesty of the Cutty Sark it is hard to argue with that. This particular ship made the equivalent of 2½ trips to the moon and back.

Cutty Sark

Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site

We were now on the grounds of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage site which was inscribed in 1997 with this description:

The ensemble of buildings at Greenwich, an outlying district of London, and the park in which they are set, symbolize English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Queen’s House (by Inigo Jones) was the first Palladian building in England, while the complex that was until recently the Royal Naval College was designed by Christopher Wren. The park, laid out on the basis of an original design by André Le Nôtre, contains the Old Royal Observatory, the work of Wren and the scientist Robert Hooke.

To say that as you walk around the buildings and grounds that make up this World Heritage site you are impressed is a vast understatement. However seeing from the water on a London by boat tour is even more impressive. A fact the great Italian artist Canaletto underscored in this famous painting that you can view in the Tate Museum.

A View of Greenwich from the River c.1750-2 Canaletto

However, these were not the first great buildings to be built on this site. Greenwich Palace once occupied this site from the time of Henry VII and was the principal royal court for two centuries. It was the birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth who both went on to be queen. Here is a later drawing of how it looked before Charles II had it demolished to make way for a new palace that he never got built.

Greenwich Palace

The buildings that Canaletto painted and amid which Don and I are walking today were designed by Britain’s greatest architect Sir Christopher Wren and opened in 1692 as the Royal Hospital for Seaman. The term did not mean a hospital as we would think of it, but rather a hospice or living space for retired seamen. The reason the building was constructed in two distinctive symmetrical halves is that Queen Mary II who ordered its construction, did not want the view of the Thames from the Queen’s Palace obstructed. This becomes readily apparent once you climb Observatory Hill and look down. This is considered by many to be the best view in London. That is Canary Wharf on the other side of the river, the now successful mega project was originally started by the Canadian company Olympia and Yorke owned by up until then the very successful Reichmann family. Unfortunately for them the real estate market collapsed before the Canada One building was finished and the development went bankrupt. However, in time it revived and today Canary Wharf is one of the most important banking centres in the world.

Queen’s Palace, Royal Naval College & Canary Wharf

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back down the hill to what became the Royal Naval College in 1873.

This is one side of Wren’s original hospice.

One Side of Royal Naval College aka Greenwich Hospital
Greenwich Hospital, later Royal Naval College

These are the gates leading from the Naval College grounds into the old town of Greenwich.

Gates into Royal Naval College

We decided to grab some lunch and opted for pies at Goddard’s at Greenwich which has been family run for over 130 years. It is famous for its pies. I’m fine with the liquor, but hold the eels.

Goddard’s in Greenwich

After lunch we headed for the National Maritime Museum which is one of London’s best. These are just a few of many highlights starting with the figureheads.

Figureheads, Maritime Museum

And ship’s badges.

Ship's Badges, London by Boat
Ship’s Badges

This is a the royal barge of Prince Frederick who was the oldest son of George II and presumptive heir until his death before the king at age 44. However, his son became George III. This was built in 1723 and used for ceremonial purposes for another 125 years. If you going to see London by boat this is the way to go.

Prince Frederick’s Royal Barge

For me, the most significant artifact was this famous uniform that Lord Nelson was wearing at the Battle of Trafalgar when he was shot by a French sniper and died aboard the H.M.S. Victory which I had visited in Portsmouth on my last trip to England and wrote about in this post. If you look closely you can see the place where the bullet pierced the uniform. It’s very hard to get your head around the fact that you are standing only a few feet away from the presence of one of the greatest figures in British history.

Lord Nelson’s Trafalgar Uniform

After a far too brief visit to the Maritime Museum Don and I walked up the hill to the Royal Observatory which is a must visit on this London by boat excursion. Aside from the best view in London which I featured above it has an attraction that brings people here from all over the world. That is the Prime Meridian which is 0° longitude and the standard for the 24 hour time zone system which was invented by Sir Sandford Fleming, a resident of my home city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. There had to be a place where time effectively started and in 1884 an international conference selected the Royal Observatory as the place for the prime meridian.

Rudyard Kipling wrote that “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet”, but it turns out he was wrong. Here east and west meet as Don stands astride the Prime Meridian.

Don on the Prime Meridian

Technically since 1973 when the prime meridian began to be measured from the centre of the earth and not the surface, it has moved over 100 metres from this site, but don’t tell that to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come here every year to get photographed standing on it.

Also on the grounds 0f the Royal Observatory are the prime measurements for the British Imperial system of length.

If you want to know how long a foot or a yard is, this is where you get the correct measurements.

The Official Measures

We could easily have spent an entire day exploring Greenwich, but it was time to resume our London by boat tour, this time on one of the private boats that provide outdoor seating.

This is Canary Wharf from the water.

Canary Wharf, London by boat
Canary Wharf

Further up the Thames we got this great view of the Tower Bridge with the Shard on the left and St. Paul’s dome on the right.

London by Boat View
View of London from the Thames

Other sites on riverfront on this London by boat trip were the Royal Air Force monument.

RAF Monument, London by boat
RAF Monument

And Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk that is the oldest artifact in London, dating back to 1,450 BCE. For once it was not something the Brits simply removed without permission, but a gift from the Egyptian ruler in thanks for the defeat and expulsion of Napoleon’s forces at the Battles of the Nile and Alexandria.

Cleopatra's Needle, London by Boat
Cleopatra’s Needle

London by boat also provides the best view of the London Eye which I will be visiting with my grandson when I return to London after the golf trip.

London Eye, London by boat
London Eye

At last, but all too soon we reach our final destination on this London by boat excursion, Westminster Embankment and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben freed from its years of being scaffolded..

Houses of Parliament from London by boat
Houses of Parliament

Samuel Johnson famously remarked that when a man tired of London, he was tired of life. I’m glad to report that this tour of London by boat definitely affirmed that I am very much still in love with this great city.