Marathon journey by road, rail, sea & air review
You're going to enjoy this one... we're going to do a loop of London on every kind of transport available: the bus, train, boat and cable car -- so that's the road, rail, sea and air. By the time you finish this tour you will be an expert on using London transport.
First leg -- Thames Clipper from the London Eye to The O2 (45 mins)
I am going to join you on this tour today -- so we can do it together -- but you'll have to excuse my gloom because it is absolutely tipping it down with rain. But I prefer riding on a boat when it's raining anyway -- it just seems right and proper that the passengers get wet too. Why should the boat have to slog its way down the dirty Thames doing all the hard work when the passengers are just sitting there drinking polystyrene cups of tea? Get them wet as well -- let's all muck in together. Let's show some solidarity with the boat.
It's actually quite hard to get wet on a Thames Clipper because they are mostly enclosed with just a couple of open-air seats at the front or back -- it's more like a floating greenhouse with seats inside. I am sitting here with raindrops battering the sides and making a tin drum racket on the windows. I can forget about taking any sightseeing photos today because there are five-foot puddles forming on the see-through roof. It is absolutely terrible weather for a tourist but I don't care because this is London how I like it -- wet and grey and getting greyer by the minute. These boats are usually crammed full of passengers but they have obviously decided to stay indoors in the warm today, so I've got a whole row of seats to myself.
On a sunny day you can enjoy the sights along the river. You start with Cleopatra's Needle on the left, and then the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre on the right. After passing St. Paul's Cathedral it's up to London Bridge and The Shard. Then you get a good look at the City skyscrapers, City Hall and the Tower of London before passing underneath Tower Bridge. That's when the fun really starts...
The stretch between Tower Bridge and Greenwich is my favourite part of the Thames. Not because of the landmarks (there aren't any) but because you really start to feel as if you're heading out to sea. When the river starts to fatten out the boat begins to roll around and stretch its legs. It gets choppy. It gets noisy. The flag starts straining on its pole like it wants to break free. The riverside warehouses and wharves are getting lost in a curtain of water that is cracking against the glass. I'd only need two colours to paint this scene today -- grey for the water, grey for the buildings and silver white for the sky.
Am I putting you off this trip? I hope not. Why does everything have to be done in the sun? This lousy weather is as much a part of London as Big Ben. London guidebooks are always moaning about the British weather, but it feels like home to me.
After Canary Wharf comes the beauty of Greenwich (but I wish they would knock that power station down -- you will see what I mean when you get there). Then it's round the bend to the Millennium Dome, where we need to get off.
Second leg -- Cable car from The O2 to Royal Victoria (5-10 mins)
As you float into the pier you should be able to see the cable car high in the sky. That is where we are heading next. Or rather... that is where you are heading next. Because there is no way on earth I am getting on that thing when the weather is as bad as it is today (I'm not insane!). I know I said was going to join you on this tour but forget it -- you are on your own now. Let me give you an idea about how bad the weather is: I can only just make out the cable car cabins through the rainy grey storm clouds. As they travel up the zip line they are slowly growing feint until they practically disappear inside the storm. It's as if the cloud is gobbling them up one by one, on a long strand of spaghetti. This isn't normal rain -- this is biblical rain. End of the world stuff. If it was raining like this when Noah built his boat then he would have refused to set sail. They usually shut the ride down when the weather gets this bad but it's still running today. I would love to know whether there is anybody brave enough (or dumb enough) to be inside, but I can't make them out.
I'm not going to lie to you -- I absolutely hate the cable car (I hate heights). Why anyone would choose to lock themselves inside a glass bubble and dangle from a skipping rope in the sky, I do not know. And to make matters worse the newspapers have been full of stories recently about planes tumbling out of the sky and getting blown to bits by terrorists. One of them was flown into a mountainside by a suicidal pilot... jesus christ... is it any wonder that I don't like flying on this thing? Because that's basically what this thing is, isn't it? -- a plane on a rope. But unlike a real plane this one hasn't got any wings or any wheels or an engine. You are basically just sitting inside a flimsy fuselage. At least with a real plane you can glide into the airport if the engine cuts out; but if this rope snaps then that's it -- you're dead. Let's not beat around the bush here... five minutes after climbing aboard this thing you could be standing at the Pearly Gates. That's a cheery thought isn't it (are you looking forward to this?). I don't mean to put you off... but I like to be honest in my reviews. I'm building up the tension to make it more exciting to ride. Assuming that the Thames Clipper didn't sink and drown you, then there's a good chance that this cable car will smash into the sea and finish you off. Unfortunately it's also the only way I know of getting across to the other side of the Thames without swimming -- so you've got no choice. You have to do it. Don't chicken out on me now...
I will be totally straight with you and admit that I chickened out of doing this leg. But I have actually ridden on it several times before, so you might like to read my standalone review of the cable car to see what it's really like to ride.
To be fair to it, the view of The O2 with the Canary Wharf skyscrapers behind, and the City skyscrapers even further behind them, is pretty fantastic.
Third leg -- DLR from Royal Victoria to Tower Gateway (15-20 mins)
If you're still alive (you might want to take five minutes to kiss the ground and settle your jelly legs), cross over the road to the Royal Victoria DLR station.
This might seem like a boring train ride but trust me... this is fun. The Docklands Light Railway is an automated track and controlled by robots, so they don't need any drivers at the front. That means that you can sit right up against the front window and watch the train track rolling out before you -- it's a bit like sitting at the front of a rollercoaster. Sometimes you might find that a member of staff is occupying one of the front seats so he can press a few coloured buttons, but there will always be at least one more seat for the passengers. Unfortunately it's also the most popular seat in town, so you'll have to get a bit lucky.
To increase your chances of sitting in it you need to stand right at the far end of the platform when the train comes. It is not possible to walk between the carriages once on board, so if you don't board the train at the very first carriage then you will definitely miss out. I probably manage to grab it about 25% of the time I try, so the odds are pretty decent that you'll win (and even if you don't manage to sit in it straight away, you can always jump in it further down the line once the original passengers have gotten off).
Another interesting thing about this train is that most of the route is above ground on an elevated monorail, so you can see all of the cars and roads below, and get a good look at the skyscrapers and posh boats and marinas by Canary Wharf. How cool does Canary Wharf look when you pass by it on the DLR? (It looks even better in the evening when all the lights are on.) As soon as you approach Shadwell you should be able to see the Gherkin and the City skyscrapers looming up ahead.
Keep going all the way to the end of the line, and get off at Tower Gateway.
Fourth leg -- Tube train from Tower Hill to Liverpool Street (5 mins)
When you come out of Tower Gateway DLR station you should see the Tower of London directly ahead. Walk towards it and bear right, and you should find Tower Hill underground station further down the road (it's only sixty seconds away). Now catch a Circle line train to Liverpool Street. You need to find a sign for the eastbound platform.
We're only going two stops because this is supposed to be a sightseeing tour and there's not much to see on the underground (...because it's under ground) but it's still nice to experience the tube at least once on your holiday.
When you get to Liverpool Street follow the National Rail signs until you end up inside the main station, where all the National Rail platforms and shops are.
Fifth leg -- No.11 bus from Liverpool Street to Big Ben (30 mins)
For the final leg of our journey we're going to catch a double decker bus to Westminster, but the bus stop is inside the station (and yes, I know that sounds weird -- but trust me). You'll find a line of bus stops on the top level which are still inside the ticket hall. We need the No.11 bus to Fulham Broadway.
This is easily the best bus route in London and it will take you on a mini-sightseeing tour past some of the best landmarks in the city. Obviously it goes without saying that you need to sit on the top deck, right at the front -- let's pretend we're kids again. When was the last time you sat at the front of a bus? Let's pretend were driving it too!
I've written a big standalone review of this bus route which you might like to read, but I'll give you a little recap here as well. The first sight you'll see is the grand facade of Mansion House (look behind you to the left, and you'll see the front of the Royal Exchange too). Then it's through the busy City and round the side of St Paul's Cathedral for a great view of the dome. Then you go up Ludgate Hill and down Fleet Street to the Royal Courts of Justice. Then you'll head up the Strand towards Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column. You'll get a good look at the National Gallery and Admiralty Arch here, before turning left down Whitehall towards Parliament Square.
If you keep looking towards the right as you pass down Whitehall then you'll see the mounted sentries standing outside Horse Guards and the big black iron gates of Downing Street. Then you'll have Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament dead ahead, before turning right alongside Westminster Abbey. And that's where you need to get off. Now find a pub.
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