Plain sailing on a London bus
THERE is no great city without water. From Istanbul to Paris, Sydney to New York, the grandest and most glorious have blue running through.
London’s Thames has held its weight of history, has carried kings and traitors, warships and trade ships, clippers heavy with tea and spice.
The Vikings sailed up it, looting and terrorising; William the Conqueror built the Tower of London on its bank; centuries later Anne Boleyn was rowed there to her death; 23 years after and her daughter arrived on her barge, triumphant as England’s new queen. Here, Sir Walter Raleigh set sail; and Oxford and Cambridge have raced for 200 years. It has been bloated with sewage, and frozen so thick that bonfires were lit straight on the ice.
The Thames no longer stinks, nor does it freeze, and today its noblest boats sit permanently anchored: the replica of the Golden Hind, the boat on which Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake; the Cutty Sark, the last of the tea clippers, her masts and rigging a cobweb against the sky; and the grey, grizzled HMS Belfast, which saw service through the worst days of World War II and beyond, as far as Korea.
With these great vessels moored, the traffic of the Thames is gentle now: tour boats and the odd gin palace, tugs pulling container pallets, and the slow police patrols.
Most unspectacular and unglamorous of all is the River Bus, the daily service that chugs a constant path from Greenwich, in the east, to Putney, in the west, and back again. It is used as any other piece of public transport — by business people, schoolchildren and the hoi polloi of London with places to go.
Tickets cost a few pounds, you find a seat inside or out, you sit down. You can get a bad coffee and a bag of crisps from the kiosk, if you’re feeling fancy. Nobody greets you or demonstrates safety; there are no fascinating facts about the sights to your left and to your right.
This is a bus. A bog standard, unromantic, unjazzy bus, that happens to clip through the heart of the most singular, eccentric, exciting city on earth. If you miss Big Ben chiming because you are reading a newspaper — too bad, really, nobody cares. This is London, innit.
I like to board at the pier just under the London Eye, tourists peering down from their bubbles, and take the boat west, past the carousels and ice-cream vans of the South Bank, and the regal 1970s brutality of the National Theatre.
Bloody hell, some of the buildings by Blackfriars Bridge are total eyesores, but look to the right and there’s the Globe Theatre; if you pass it during a show, the incense pours out from the roof and you can smell it even here, in the middle of the water.
Old Billingsgate is on the left (once the city’s fish market and now an events venue, such is life); next to it the Tower of London, Traitor’s Gate still daubed with its sad white letters; opposite reigns Mayor Boris Johnson, ensconced within the curved glass of City Hall.
Here is Tower Bridge — tsk, it’s opening for some show-off boat and we’re having to sit and wait. Oh, look. There’s a Nando’s chicken shop. And here are the tall, flat fronts of the Victorian wharves and warehouses, into which the world’s riches were fed to make England fat.
Here it all is, the higgledy, humbling mess that has sprouted up over 2000 short years. And it’s yours, this liquid history, for £4.75 ($9.25). • tfl.gov.uk/modes/river/
The River Bus on its way up the Thames