Plain sail­ing on a Lon­don bus

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - AF­SANEH KNIGHT

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). •

The River Bus on its way up the Thames

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