At the weekend a group of us celebrated a friend’s birthday by taking two boats down the Thames, from Greenwich to Westminster, and then on from Westminster to Kew. Unless you extend the trip in both directions to the Thames Barrier and and Richmond, respectively, this is more or less as far as you can go down the river without leaving London.
The first thing that becomes obvious when you get on one of these city cruises is how few tourists there actually are onboard. Everyone on the boat with us seemed to be a Londoner – understandable when you consider that this is a view of London that the majority of us rarely actually see, and a pretty damn great one at that.
The stretch from Greenwich to Westminster is probably the most interesting – from the decaying industrial space around parts of Deptford, past the converted warehouses and multi-million pound apartments, the high-rise sprawl of the Wharf and iconic City buildings old and new overlooking several fantastic-looking riverside pubs I never knew existed.
Once you get west of the Houses of Parliament and Lambeth Palace, however, the predominance of luxury apartments seems to force out almost every trace of the city’s history. There are exceptions, notably the empty husk of Battersea Power Station, but even that’s been sitting waiting for the property developers to come calling for years now. I’m not against redevelopment along the banks of the Thames, watching the skyline from Tower Bridge evolve over the past couple of years has been pretty striking. I’d rather audacious architectural setpieces, except perhaps those as preposterous as St George’s Wharf in Vauxhall with all its Bondvillainesque bombast, than dilapidated industrial wasteland and fenced-off riverside. But it doesn’t feel like my city. The guide gleefully informs us that x bland residential tower is home to Robbie Williams or Michael Caine for three weeks a year, and while the real world may be all of two minutes walk away, this is another London, and we’re not invited.
Just as it all seems to get overwhelming, the gradual westward drift into ruralism is refreshing – tree-lined riverbanks, the occasional pub and boat house, and the rowers who remind you that the Thames is still actually used for stuff. One of the most gratifying sights along the journey is the site of Fulham’s Craven Cottage ready for the season ahead after sitting dormant for two years, the property developers finally fought off. Londoners have neglected the river for so long, it seems wasteful just to turn it into another rich person’s playground.