Friday, July 17, 2009

The Ultimate London Walk by the Thames

I have business colleagues that come to London and ask for advice about what to see. Typically they only have a short time, maybe in the evening after the meeting, and want to get a feel for the city. And the suggestion is always the same - walk by the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge.

This route goes along side the River Thames and on the way you can see a large chunk of central London's sights in one go. It's mostly pedestrianised (apart from some of the bridges) and there are tube stations at either end.

So here is the route in detail, and 50 top things to see on the way, including monuments, buildings, art centres, shops, eating places, and great views. The walk is about 5 km long, though with diversions that probably creeps up to 6 km. If there's isn't enough time then a shorter route is from Embankment to London Bridge, which is about 3 km straight, 4 km with diversions. You can of course do it the other way round!

Westminster Tube

Coming out here you'll be surrounded by crowds of tourists and with good reason, as this is one of the hearts of not just London but Britain. Stand in the centre of Parliament Square and look around and you'll see:

1. Westminster Abbey: Every sovereign but two (both Edwards) has been crowned here since William the Conqueror in 1066. It is also choc-a-block with burials and memorials of Britain's great and good from Dickens to Darwin (full list here). Rather annoyingly you have to pay to get in - there should be a discount at least for Londoners!

2. Houses of Parliament: this comprises the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and technically is called the Palace of Westminster, but that term isn't used much. Most of what you see is the gothic work of Sir Charles Parry in the early days of Queen Victoria, after a fire destroyed much of the old building, though parts like the Westminster Hall survived. You can queue up to go to the Visitors Gallery, though if its anything interesting being debated (e.g. the Iraq War) the queue will be very long!

3. Big Ben: this is the name of the bell not the tower, though in practice (again) everyone calls it Big Ben not "The Clock Tower". The clock and tower are one of the icons of London, but the lovely chimes well worth listening out for too.

4. Statue of Churchill: there are lots of statues all over London and in Parliament Square there is one of the most famous: Sir Winston Churchill.

5. Protests: there's almost always a protest outside Parliament so it's worth catching a flavour of the political issues here

Ok, that's enough gauping, time to move on. Next head south till you get to:

Westminster Bridge

Almost all of London's bridges have fine views and this is no exception. As well as all the Westminster stuff look out for:

6. Statue of Boudica: Queen of the ancient Britons, you won't be able to miss her riding on a chariot at the north end of the Bridge

7. Westminster Pier: a good place to get river boats to other destinations, including upriver to Kew or downriver to Greenwich.

On the other side of the bridge you start the south bank part of this walk.

London Eye and Around

8. County Hall: this isn't the most glamorous of buildings but once was the home of the Greater London Council. In the '80s it was a hot bed of socialism led by newt enthusiast Ken Livingston, who got under the skin of Margaret Thatcher on the other side of the river in Westminster. Maggie was so incensed she disbanded the GLC, and London went without a governing body for 14 years until a new one was created, this time further down river by Tower Bridge so not to be too close to Parliament. However Ken Livingston had the last laugh by becoming the first Mayor of London.

9. London Aquarium: this is in the old County Hall and has around 400 varieties of fish. I've never been and those that have been come back saying "its ok....", so probably one of those things to save for a rainy day.

10. Dali Exhibition: this too is in the old County Hall (there's also a hotel there). I've never been and don't know anyone who has, so maybe its another rainy day project unless you're a Dali fan. There are apparently 500 exhibits so should be enough for a really surreal experience.

10. Updated: alas Dali has gone to Venice and not been replaced so instead I'll mention the Barclay's bike scheme aka Boris bikes which are a great way to get around London. Registering to get an access key makes it even better.

11. The London Eye: This is the biggest Ferris wheel in Europe and is just brilliant. Even Londoner's do this - and more than once. There are great views both during the day and at night, though rain does make it less interesting. Don't worry if you don't like heights as the movement is very slow (it takes half an hour to go round) so the pods feel very stable almost like standing in a building. However the queue can be very long, so it's a good idea to book in advance and not for (say) 3 pm in summer when it will be packed.

Ok, time to move on to the next section:

Embankment and Around

This is an alternative starting point from Embankment tube station. The north and south banks of the Thames are connected here by a railway bridge and on either side of that (i.e. upriver and downriver) by pedestrian bridges, called the:

12. Golden Jubilee Bridges: These have great views upriver to the Wheel and Westminster and downriver to St Paul's. So you can cross firstly on the west side and then again on the east side.

13. Ocean Leisure: on the north side underneath the railway arches is a shop for all things water related, from sailing to scuba diving. Bit pricy but if you really want that glossy book about the Volvo Ocean Race, this is the place in London to go.

14. Snack bars: you're going to need sustenance for this walk, and this is the first place to stop. Just outside Embankment tube in Villiers Street which heads up to The Strand. Here you can find lots of places where you can get sandwiches: my favourite is Wasabi which does interesting sushi like smoked eel (of course you can't do tuna anymore).

15. Embankment Gardens: if you want somewhere to sit and eat your snack, next to Villiers Street / Embankment tube is this little garden. As well as being a nice quiet green spot, it is useful to mark how much wider the Thames used to be before the Thames Embankment was built, constraining the river into a much narrower space.

16. Cleopatra's Needle: time to walk south again across the other side of the Golden Jubilee Bridge. As you do you'll get a good view of Cleopatra's Needle. It is very unlikely to have had anything to do with Cleopatra but was a gift from Egypt after Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile. It's had a perilous history as it almost sank on its way to London and during the First World War one of it's associated sphinx suffered bomb damage - the shrapnel marks can still be seen.

On the southern side of the bridge you will find:

The South Bank Centre

The South Bank Centre was built after the Second World War using modernist principles out of concrete, which does eventually grow on one. It's a good place to get a dollop of culture what ever your tastes, and there are often buskers or organised free concerts. It comprises:

17. Royal Festival Hall: largest of the halls used for big orchestral works like symphonies etc but also has been used by Motorhead and Jarvis Crocker.

18. Queen Elizabeth Hall: middle sized hall which makes it very flexible so can have chamber or orchestral music there, plus of course many other things such as the last ever performance by the legendary Ivor Cutlor (which was sublime and surreal).

19. Purcell Room: the baby of the three, used for smaller performances including chamber music, poetry and jazz.

20. Hayward Gallery: a good place to go for modern art. They have had some notable exhibitions - my favourite was the magnificent Gormley show that spread out of the building into the roof tops all around - superb! At the top is a kinetic light sculpture.

21. Eating at the South Bank: lots of choice here from sandwiches to chains to upmarket restaurants. The best there is "Skylon" (used to be called The People's Palace) which can get crowded so its worth booking ahead. More of a special occasion place than quick snack.

Nearby the South Bank Centre

In the vicinity of the South Bank Centre you will find:

22. The London IMAX: you know the score, huge screen, immersion experience. Again can be good for wet days.

23. Second hand books: under Waterloo Bridge you'll find many stalls selling second hand books which is a great way to spend many happy minutes browsing away

24. The National Theatre: one of London's top theatre going destinations, where many, many award winning plays have been shown. Worth checking out what's currently available.

Across Waterloo Bridge

25. Waterloo Bridge itself is arguably the point to get the best view of London - its from where the picture above was taken. For some reason it is even better if you are in a black taxi cab crossing Waterloo Bridge.

26. Somerset House: On the other side of Waterloo Bridge is the lovely Somerset House where you will find the Courtauld Art Gallery. The central courtyard has a water fountain display in summer and ice rink in winter. The courtyard has also been used to stage concerts for the likes of Goldfrapp and C4 films use it as an open air cinema. On the river side there is also a very nice restaurant called The Admiralty in recognition of the previous usage of the building.

Beyond the South Bank

Continuing along the south bank of the Thames you there is a stretch of walk between the National Theatre and the Tate. Along this section you will find:

27. Gabriel's Wharf: this is a collection of restaurants and arts & crafts shops if you're into that sort of thing.

28. Sand art: by Gabriel's Wharf at low tide there is some sand which makes a nice beach area. This is sometimes used by artists to make very short term art - it will all be washed away as the tide comes in. In fact all along the South Bank walk you are likely to encounter random buskers and street artists.

29. Oxo Tower: run by Harvy Nicks, this is home to one of the best restaurants in London. To be honest there are those that are underwhelmed by the actual food but the stunningly lovely view always makes up for it. A place to pop the question or entertain your favourite friends and family. There are two parts - the "real" restaurant or the brasserie, which has the same kitchen and view but is a lot cheaper.

30. Blackfriars Bridge: stop for a moment by this bridge and remember the lurid tale of how in 1982 "God's Banker" Roberto Calvi was found dead, hanging underneath this bridge. While officially considered murder, no one has been found guilty though suspects include the Mafia, the Vatican, and the P2 Masonic Lodge.

With that thought its time to move on to:

The Tate Modern and Around:

31. The Tate Modern art gallery is brilliant. The re-developed power station sits at one end of the Millennium Bridge facing St. Paul's Cathedral. A lot of it can be seen for free including whatever is currently in the Turbine Hall plus the permanent galleries, though the exhibitions typically have a charge. There is a good restaurant at the top, though you can't book, just take pot luck. There are also snack bars, a comprehensive art shop, and great views towards St. Paul's.

32. Millennium Bridge: also called the wobbly bridge as it's original design was flawed and heavy movement dampeners had to be fixed. Now boringly solid it lives up to its other nick-name of blade of light, as it uses remarkably minimal supports.

33. St Paul's Cathedral: the Millennium Bridge is aligned with a impressive view up to Sir Christopher Wren's great St. Paul's Cathedral. Its a bit further off than it looks so I wouldn't recommend heading off towards it unless you've had enough of the Thames bank walk as its an either / or. Development regulations limits the size of buildings nearby so its dome does still stand high on the skyline.

34. Boat to Tate Britain: There is a neat way of getting to the other part of the Tate Museums, namely Tate Britain, which is a dedicated river boat that shuttles between the two, though there is a minimal charge. The pier is just downriver of the Millennium Bridge, near the Globe.

35. Shakespeare's Globe: This is a reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre that opened in 1599. It isn't actually on exactly the same site, but it was nearby also on the south bank. It is a great way to see the best ever playwright's work as it was originally devised - though you are taking a bit of pot luck as it is open to the elements (except for some of the seating area which is covered).


Next along from the Tate / Globe you'll go under Southwark Bridge to Southwark, where you'll find:

36: The Anchor Bankside: This pub isn't that brilliant but is on the site of the old pub where Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of London in "a little ale house by the river". It's a good spot to stop for a pint and watch the world go by.

37. The Clink: this is the original prison from which comes the term being "in the clink". There's a tourist attraction there which have never been in, but its the place to remember that the south bank was traditionally the seedier side of the river, where the gambling houses and brothels were to be found.

38: Winchester Palace: just passed The Clink you'll see some ruins, flint walls and a rose shaped window. This is what remains of the Winchester Palace, built in 1109 by the Bishop of that name.

39. The Golden Hind: this is a re-construction of the boat in which Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world between 1577 and 1580. You can go on board and there are special events for kids such as sleepovers with pirates, that sort of thing.

40. Borough Market: foodie heaven! You can wander the stalls and shops and delight your taste buds. Try interesting cheeses, sushi, fresh fruit, and lots of take away snacks from chicken sati to scallops with lime. Yummy!! The market is quite historic, probably going back to Roman times.

41. More restaurants and wine bars: good places to stop for a bite here - just wander around Stoney's Street or up above the market to the Roast Restaurant.

42. Southwark Cathedral: one of London's oldest churches, going back to at least 1220, though the site itself has probably been used for much longer. A nice place to sit down, take the weight off your feet, and reflect on life. If you lucky you might catch a concert.

If you want this is a possible place to stop and catch the tube at London Bridge. If you're still up for it keep going and cross:

London Bridge and the City

43. London Bridge. Today this isn't that exciting a bridge, packed with traffic and commuters heading off into the City along the A3 road. But its history is linked to London's as a whole. In times passed London was clustered around this, at the time the one and only bridge across the river. There have been many bridges on this spot over the years, including one that was burnt down as a way of protecting London from a Viking invasion - hence "London Bridge is falling down, falling down". Nice views down river to Tower Bridge.

44. The City. Ok, it just looks like a concrete jungle, but this is worth a second look. Firstly the City is London, the old London before it expanded west to Westminster. Secondly its banks and finance houses comprise a huge part of Britain's economy, where the currency exchanges transactions can hit a trillion dollars a day. Of course the credit crunch etc has slightly put a damper on the party.

Having crossed back to the north bank of the river, continue the walk down river towards Tower Bridge

London Bridge to Tower Bridge

45. The Monument: just on the north side is the column called the Monument which marks the spot where the terrible Great Fire of London started in 1666. Until recently it was covered in scaffolding as it was renovated but now it is open and you can climb the narrow staircase to the top.

46. HMS Belfast: on the other side of the river you'll see the great battleship HMS Belfast. It saw action in WW2 including the engagement and sinking of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and bombarding Normandy during the invasion. You can go on board for tours.

47. Custom House: its easy to forget that London was once home to the world's greatest port, with boats in their hundreds packed along the shores of the Thames or the docks further down river. A reminder of those days is the impressive Custom House just beside the Tower. On the other side of the Custom House is the Old Billingsgate Market - look out for the lovely details such as the two fish weathervanes!

48. The Tower of London: another icon of London, this is where traitors were held before execution, and the crown jewels are kept safe by the Beefeaters. Lots of gory details and wow amazing stones for kids to be impressed by.

49. Tower Bridge: the final icon of London on this walk is this bridge with two castle like towers, a lifting lower level and upper walk way. You can explore inside to see the mechanisms. Recently a motocross champion leapt across the opening - see the amazing video here.

50. Haagen Dazs: and enough is enough, time for a break. I once took one of my nieces to Tower Bridge on a winter day where enthusiasm disappeared like our misty breath into the freezing cold air. Smiles were restored by a stop over in this nearby ice ream parlour. Yummy!

50. Oh no! That particular Haagen Dazs has closed and its now a cafe. Instead, why not go a little bit beyond Tower Bridge to see the "Girl with dolphin" sculpture, as in this photo here.

Ok, that's the tourist trail for today - find the nearby Tower Hill tube and make your way home.

Tomorrow there'll be the "I don't want to be a tourist, tell me about something different" post.


Tillerman said...

Wow. I wish I had had that list when Tillerwoman and I were in London for the marathon a couple of years ago. Not that I would have wanted to walk that far the day before (or the one after) the marathon. But we did ride the Eye and take a river trip to see the Thames Barrier with a stop for lunch in Greenwich in the way.

Carol Anne said...

Not sure why, but one of my more vivid memories from when I was in Britain nearly 30 years ago was touring the HMS Belfast. I also found the Crown Jewels stunning.

JP said...

I think doing a marathon is amazingly impressive and you can see most of places on the list from the boat trip which is much more knee / feet friendly!

You know I've never been on the HMS Belfast, just walked by on either side of the Thames. Might see if can find a nephew or niece who'd like a tour round

Pat said...

Perhaps you could do a review of the current state of Greenwich and the Cutty Sark and Gypsy Moth?

Or throw in Portsmouth and Bristol and do a "Britain for Sailors" tour?

JP said...

Alas Greenwich isn't great at the moment as poor old Cutty Sark is still under wraps and Gypsy Moth has been taken away.

Maybe should do Victory etc at Portsmouth - or Bristol? There's lots at both but haven't been to either since was very small.