At 215 miles long and neatly dividing London between North and South, the River Thames is the silvery thread that provides continuity for a City that is always changing. The sinuous loops and eccentrically named reaches provide the focus for some of London’s greatest sights. Royal Palaces, world renowned art galleries and theatres, a great fortress, a World War II battle cruiser, an observation wheel and many famous bridges can all be seen from the Thames. Many of these sights can be visited and most are free. So climb aboard as we enjoy a gentle journey along the capital city’s greatest artery.
1. Hampton Court Palace
We begin way upstream at the great Medieval palace of Hampton Court 3.5 hours from Westminster by boat (substantially faster by train from Waterloo). This is rather faster than Henry VIII would have taken in his oar powered Royal Barge. Hampton Court Palace is a jewel packed with stunning architecture from the Tudor period through to the beautiful additions by Sir Christopher Wren for King William III and Queen Mary. The art is of the highest quality with world renowned tapestries and paintings by such luminaries as Mantegna, Verrio and Kneller. The magnificent Tudor kitchens have been lovingly laid out just as they would have appeared in the 16th Century. Peacocks for dinner anyone! If the younger members of the family get a bit restive, the garden has a terrific maze and a new “Magic Garden.”
Hampton Court Palace – The bridge over the moat leads to the Tudor west front. Photo Credit: ©Historic Royal Palaces..
2 & 3. Tate Britain + Tate Modern
We travel downstream into the heart of London passing Battersea and Nine Elms to the South. This area is undergoing an enormous transformation with huge new towers seeming to appear every week. Battersea Power Station is at last being transformed into something useful after decades of neglect, and the arrival of the American Embassy. When our American friends do finally move into their brand spanking new Kieran Timberlake designed mega embassy, they will be only a short stroll across Vauxhall Bridge from Tate Britain. This art gallery built by the sugar magnate Henry Tate on the site of the old Millbank Penitentiary, houses British Art from 1545 to the present. But not much modern Art. That’s to be found a couple of miles further downstream at Tate Modern. Tate Britain contains a very broad range of British fine art and sculpture from Millais and the pre-Raphelites to Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, but especially JMW Turner, perhaps the greatest of all British artists. The Clore Galleries are stuffed full of Turner’s work left to the nation by the artist.
A view of Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames. Photo Credit: ©Visit London Images.
4. The Palace of Westminster
A few hundred yards past Lambeth Bridge the unmistakable and familiar shapes of The Palace of Westminster otherwise known as the Houses of Parliament hove into view. This great Victorian Gothic edifice by Charles Barry with design by Augustus Pugin is a must-see for all visitors to London. The outside is very spectacular, bookended by The Victoria Tower at the Southern end and the Elizabeth Tower (known the world over as Big Ben) at the North. Any British citizen can visit their MP (although it’s not a bad idea to make an appointment). Tours of the interior of the Palace are conducted at times when the House is in recession and on most Saturdays. Take a Blue Badge Tourist Guide tour to get the most out of your visit.
A view of Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster. Photo Credit: ©Visit London Images.
5. The London Eye
We continue a short distance North of Westminster Bridge to another “must not miss” site on the Thames. It’s The London Eye, the capital’s very own observation wheel. Even when the weather is bad, which let’s face it, is rare in London, the views from its highest point of 135 meters, are spectacular. Step into one of 32 pods and experience the wonderful sensation of rising above the cityscape seeing all those famous buildings from an ever-increasing height. The Queen’s Gardens at Buckingham Palace are hard to see unless you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Garden Party, and this is one place where you do get a view. Bring your binoculars and perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a pack of corgis being taken out for a stroll by a lady in a headscarf…..! The London Eye sits at the start of the happening Southbank area where there is always something going on whether it be street entertainers, high drama at the National Theatre or skateboarding by experts (plenty of material here for future “fail army” posts on YouTube!) In the Summer go and have a drink in the lovely gardens atop the South Bank Centre (look for the yellow staircase).
View of the London Eye and historic County Hall building. Photo Credit: ©Ursula Petula Barzey.
6 & 7. HMS Belfast + Tower Bridge
At Blackfriars Bridge we enter the City and the stretch of the Thames that was at one stage the busiest shipping port in the world. There’s not much to remind us of that today other than the odd restored crane and an abundance of old warehouses that have been converted into luxurious riverside apartments. This section of the river is also replete with famous sites. The battlecruiser, HMS Belfast, a veteran of World War 2 and the Korean War, sits nobly in the water between London and Tower Bridges. As part of the Imperial War Museum, it’s open every day and definitely one for those who like the thought of a life on the ocean wave. Tower Bridge must qualify as a candidate for most famous bridge in the world. Try and time your visit to coincide with a “lift” when the two great bascules impressively rise to allow shipping to pass through. There is a great museum at Tower Bridge and a death-defying high-level walkway paved with glass to negotiate.
HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge in London. Photo Credit: ©Visit London Images
8. Tower of London
From Tower Bridge you get a stunning view of London’s oldest fortress, palace and prison. The Tower of London is not to be missed. One thousand years old, it is Europe’s most complete medieval castle. And people still live here, notably the Yeoman Warders or Beefeaters with their magnificent costumes. If that wasn’t enough, the Tower is guarded by a detachment of Guardsmen who are here to protect the jewels in the crown or rather, The Crown Jewels. The most stunning collection of jewels and royal regalia in the world! There is just far too much history to do justice to the Tower so take my advice and hire a Blue Badge Tourist Guide to get the most out of your tour.
Tower of London as viewed from the south side of the river including Traitors Gate and the White Tower. Photo credit: © Historic Royal Palaces.
9. Greenwich Park
Further downstream at Royal Greenwich we can see the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark (one of the fastest tea clippers in the world) and the Royal Naval College (the movie makers of The Golden Compass, Les Miserables and many more have all used Christopher Wren’s spectacular buildings as a backdrop.) Don’t forget the National Maritime Museum and the recently restored gem that is the Queen’s House. Take a picnic and enjoy the great views from the hillside of Greenwich Park.
View of the National Maritime Museum from Greenwich Observatory hill. Photo Credit: ©David Mark/Pixabay.
The River Thames keeps on giving. Use your Oyster card on the many river bus services that operate on the river and see London from a different angle. Better still, take a qualified Blue Badge Tourist Guide who can point out all of the sites mentioned here and so many more. Bon voyage!