Have you taken a boat trip on the River Thames? Ever since taking a tour of London’s Tower Bridge, my six year old son has been desperate to see the bridge lift, ideally from a boat-based vantage point. So a few weeks ago, thanks to a grandfather who is always keen to indulge his grandson in anything historic or river-related, we took a trip aboard the Paddle Steamer Waverley on the River Thames in London.
Our journey took us from Tower Pier, next to the Tower of London, to Gravesend in Kent. It is possible to continue on to Southend but as it was October we decided we might not be seeing the famous seaside resort at its best. It turned out that the two hour sail to Gravesend was just right although my three year old son was so captivated by the engine room that we could probably have stayed on the boat all day.
The Waverley took a while to set off, but docked at Tower Pier we had a perfect view of Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, HMS Belfast and the Shard, landmarks that my boys are currently very interested in to put it mildly.
Once we were off, we briefly headed upstream where we were assisted by a tugboat in a 180 degree turn. Due in part to the heavy bias towards transportation in my sons’ picture books, my boys loved everything about this experience. We then watched Tower Bridge lift and we sailed beneath it, much to the delight of everyone on board, especially my children.
The boys loved gazing across the river at the sights we passed. “There it is again!” they chorused as we passed Canary Wharf for the second time. I’m not sure my explanation of river formations was fully appreciated as we sailed along the meanders of the Thames. Other highlights included the Cutty Sark, the Emirates Air Line cable cars and the Thames Barrier which looked rather sinister against the overcast sky.
Once we had passed the big hitters of central London we ventured down into the bowels of the boat to explore the workings of the engine room. It is very hot and loud and the machinery is completely exposed so visitors have a clear view of the mechanics involved. It is an impressive sight.
There are port holes from which to view the paddles turning and some great views out over the river from around the engine room.
The Waverley is the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world. Aside from the Thames, you’ll find her sailing all over the U.K. including Southampton, Liverpool and the west coast of Scotland. She is owned by a charity and has been sailing since 1947 so this year marked her 70th anniversary.
The Waverley has a gift shop, several bars and a restaurant. We decided to have lunch in Gravesend so I can’t comment on the quality of the catering except to say that it doesn’t look like a gourmet experience.
Our trip was a brilliant way to understand London and its history. The shiny skyscrapers of central London gave way to docks and warehouses. Many of the warehouses are now luxury flats, others are derelict and awaiting demolition; but plenty of the docks further downstream were very much in use with rows of gigantic cranes and masses of containers awaiting transportation. The stuff of dreams for small boys…
We saw all manner of watercraft from historic ships to modern pleasure boats, container ships and water taxis. Away from the city we passed a landfill site, a vast ominous lump on the landscape with diggers working on the slopes. There was so much for the children to see and understand on the trip that the adults in our group struggled to keep up a commentary for them.
The day out has to be one of my most enjoyable London trips with my family to date. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know we took to the water in a more modest boat on a canal, in September with equal success and enjoyment. Watching the world go by from a boat is a special kind of experience which works so well as a multi-generational family trip. For those with little legs or with legs which might be failing (or perhaps you have a foot in each of these camps), a boat trip is a great way to explore together.
We took the Tower Bridge and Thames Highlights trip which lasted 2 hours and takes you to Gravesend (there is a speedy rail link back to central London).
The cost per adult is £25, children under 18 are half price and those under 5 are free. The rail travel from Gravesend back to London is £16 if you take the high speed Javelin service (around 15 minutes) otherwise you can take the standard service at £12 (around an hour). Just make sure you buy the right ticket…
Have you taken a boat trip on the River Thames? Let me know in the comments below.