travel guide

Cruises on River Thames in London

cruises on river thamesLess than 100 years ago the River Thames was one of the busiest waterways in the world. Hundreds of ships and boats would have used the river on a daily basis and right up to the late 1960s warehouses and enormous cranes would have dominated the riverbanks east of London Bridge.

From the entrance into the Pool of London at Wapping and Limehouse the banks were lined by wharves with the docks out of sight behind high walls. As you go up river you will see the many channels that lead from the wharfside to the docks behind.

All along this eastern part of London lived, in great poverty most of the time, the many people who worked on the River. The most important of these were the watermen and lightermen whose job was to transport goods and passengers from the ships to the shore.

river thames todayNow most of what you can see along the river are blocks of flats, luxury apartment buildings often converted from the old warehouses and office buildings, and the fate of the ancient trade of waterman is to take tourists on pleasure boats up and down the Thames. Nevertheless, as we cruised upstream, there is plenty of evidence to find of these times when the Pool of London was the centre for world trade.

As you enter the Pool of London, the first areas of historical interest are, Rotherhithe on the south bank and Wapping on the north. The area of Rotherhithe has always been an area that maintained close links with the sea. For centuries, shipbuilding, ship breaking and seafaring were important industries. Many great sea expeditions started or finished here, the most famous probably being that of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde. quite close to the riverbank it is possible to see the spire of St. Mary’s Church.

This site has had a Christian church on it for 1000 years and the present one (which hasn’t changed on the outside) was designed by a protégée of Sir Christopher Wren in 1716. In this churchyard are buried the captain of the Mayflower, the boat that took the pilgrims to America in 1620, and also Prince Lee Boo of Belau, in the Pacific Islands who came to England after his father rescued the crew of a shipwreck off the Belau Islands. Sadly he died of smallpox six months after arriving.

tower bridgeOne of the most breathtaking sights of this river trip is the view of one of London’s most famous landmarks, Tower Bridge. Although not particularly old, the bridge is very unique along the Thames. Built in Victorian times it is a combined bascule bridge (drawbridge) and suspension bridge. Along with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Tower Bridge is an iconic symbol for London. Next to the bridge is the channel that leads to St. Katharine’s Dock. The dock was built in the early 19th century on the site of the ancient church of St Katharine although a small dock has been on this site since the 12th century.

Also, at around the same time. a hospice was built here to care for the sick and dying and give food and shelter to pilgrims and travellers. The church of St. Katharine managed to survive Henry VIII’s sacking of the monasteries, the Fire of London and the Gordon riots only to be razed to make space for the new docks. It was the first area of the docklands to redevelop and today houses a good mixture of hotels, housing, office space, restaurants, shops and other leisure facilities.

tower of londonRight next door to St Katharine’s is the famous Tower of London, somewhat dwarfed now by its neighbours it still stands out as a magnificent fortress depicting a thousand years of London history. The cruise boats dock here for a while to let passengers off and pick up others so it is a good opportunity to take photographs. Directly in front of the pier you will notice the Traitor’s Gate – now blocked up. It was through here that prisoners were taken on their way to incarceration.

Many of those aristocratic names throughout history would have passed under this entrance before meeting their destiny on the block. For any new visitor to London, The Tower is an essential day’s outing, with its quirky Yeomen of the Guard, or ‘Beefeaters’; the exhibits of armour and weapons; the torture chambers; the Crown Jewels; and the big black ravens of the Tower who are carefully looked after because of an ancient legend that warns of dreadful consequences if they should take flight and not return.