Taking a tour with a Thames Cruise boat you can discover many landmarks of the city of London. As you pass under Waterloo Bridge (the Ladies Bridge), take time to admire the self-cleaning Portland stone that it was constructed from. Every time it rains it cleans itself and this can be seen by the brilliant white of its exterior compared to the dirty stone underneath it. This bridge is also special as its construction was completed solely by women during the Second World War. The South Bank, to the left of the bridge, is one of the cultural and artistic centres of London. It was built in the early 1950s to celebrate the Festival of Britain and, although it is much criticised by Londoners for its brutal architectural style of concrete slabs, it does house many places of entertainment (see above) as well as open outdoor facilities for open air concerts and events, Jubilee Gardens .
On the opposite bank as you go under Waterloo Bridge , pass under Hungerford Bridge (the railway bridge which brings trains into Charing Cross) and up to Westminster Bridge, you can see many interesting buildings and monuments that flank the Victoria Embankment. Somerset House which was built more than 200 years ago stands majestically. Now used by the Inland Revenue, for many years it was where all records of the population of Britain were kept. The luxury Savoy Hotel has its rear entrance facing the river and stands behind the greenery of Victoria Embankment Gardens. Its front entrance, Savoy Court off the Strand is the only place in England where driving on the right is compulsory. This fabulous hotel has seen many famous visitors since it was built in 1899 by Richard D’Oyly Carte who presented the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Just a few of the illustrious visitors over the years have included Sarah Bernardt, Dame Nellie Melba, Enrico Caruso, George Gershwin, Elizabeth Taylor, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Elton John .
Although out of sight from the riverside, close to here are Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, St James’ Park and The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace. Near to the Savoy Hotel is the beautiful Art Deco Shell Building with its massive clock. Built in 1931, it was the London headquarters of Shell-Mex and BP Ltd until they sold it in the 1990s. In front of the Savoy and on the embankment itself is the 3,500 year old, original Egyptian obelisk commonly known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’. It was given to Britain in 1819 in recognition of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1750 . The obelisk is of red granite and is inscribed with hieroglyphics that commemorate the military victories of Ramesses II. It originally stood in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis from around 1450 BC. The monolith sits on a pedestal which contains, deep inside, various simple mementos of the 19th century. These objects include a portrait of Queen Victoria, a hydraulic jack, a railway guide and copies of a variety of newspapers. Its journey to England is interesting in itself. It came in a specially designed ship, named the Cleopatra, which got into serious trouble on the coast of France. In an attempt to save her, some of the volunteers of the rescue ship were drowned and their names are remembered on a plaque at the base of the Needle. Eventually, the crew were rescued and the ship left to drift with its precious cargo on it. A week later it was found and towed to England. The obelisk was then off-loaded for erection on the embankment and the poor ‘Cleopatra’ was sent for scrap. On either side of the Needle are Victorian bronze Sphinxes. The benches on the Embankment also have an Egyptian theme with winged sphinxes on their supports.
On the southern bank of the river you can see Southwark Cathedral. This Cathedral is the third largest place of worship in London and is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. Although the Cathedral dates from around the 14th century, the site has been a place of Christian worship for more than 1000 years. It was at this Cathedral that William Shakespeare’s brother was buried. Also, close to the Cathedral on the south bank of the River at St. Mary Overie Dock is the amazing full-sized replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th century galleon, the Golden Hinde. The ship is not a model but a real sailing ship and has sailed around 140,000 miles worldwide. An interesting place to visit for all the family but especially for children. On board they can see the crew dressed up in authentic period dress and view many fascinating artefacts and exhibits on its five decks. At weekends the Golden Hinde offers a Pirate Academy for children who wish to learn the skills of piracy. The wharfside area where Overie Docks is located is known as Pickfords Wharf. The whole area has been converted into a trendy retail and residential area with converted warehouse flats selling at a minimum price of £500,000.
If you look towards the northern bank of the River you can see the golden ball on top of the Monument that commemorates the site where the Fire of London supposedly began. It was designed by the famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren, who was responsible for much of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666.
As your boat leaves The Tower be sure to notice the surprising sandy beach to your left. This is unique for the London Thames and came about due to the philanthropy of the late Lord Wakefield who made it into a pleasure beach for the poor children of London in the 1930s. A sandy beach is surprising to see along the Thames shoreline.
If you look to the left, opposite the Tower you can see City Hall, the official home of the Greater London Council and the Mayor of London. A strange glass, egg shaped building that bears an uncanny resemblance to Darth Vader’s helmet. Close to City Hall on the same side of the river is HMS Belfast which is a floating naval museum. This ship with its twelve 6 inch guns saw action in World War Two and was last used during the Korean War. Again this is an extremely enjoyable day out for a family. All nine decks can be explored, from the engine room to the Captain’s Bridge. Close by on the same side of the river you can see the light and airy Hays Galleria. Inside you can find shops, restaurants and bars as well as the Hays Art Gallery which exhibits fine works from new and modern artists. The Galleria is located on the site of the old Hays Wharf which was one of the oldest and most successful of all the London Wharves. It was the warehouse for much of the food brought into London by river and became known as the ‘larder of London’ because of this. In the centre of the new Galleria is a boat-shaped fountain which commemorates the watery past of Hays Wharf.
On the opposite bank to Hays Wharf there are two interesting buildings to see. The first is the Customs House which is the headquarters of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise. This is where all contraband is taken and then stored in the ‘King’s Warehouse’ until later sold at auction or destroyed. The Customs House is also very close to the medieval Custom House where the Geoffrey Chaucer worked in the 14th century. The second building of interest is the old Billingsgate Fish Market. A fish street market has been in this area for over 400 years but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that a purpose built covered market was constructed for this trade. The Billingsgate fishmongers became famous in London for their use of foul language and the word ‘Billingsgate’ soon became widely known as a person who used coarse language. Likewise to talk like a ‘fishwife’ was a criticism of women who swore. Swearing aside, it was at this market that a young Michael Caine worked before embarking on his acting career. The market is now housed in new premises close to Canary Wharf and the old Billingsgate Market building is used today as a hospitality and events venue. A reminder of its original purpose can be seen by the golden fishes that the architect, Sir Horace Jones added to adorn the top of the building.
As we pass these two buildings in front of us we can see the very unimpressive London Bridge. It was at this site that the Romans built the very first bridge to span the River Thames. It was at this spot too, in around 1014, that the Vikings and Saxons pulled down the wooden London Bridge in a conflict with the Danes. It is from this time that the song, London Bridge is Falling Down, is supposed to come from. The first stone bridge was built in 1210 and lasted for around 600 years. Supported by 20 arches, the bridge was wide and strong, which it needed to be as it also had gatehouses, a drawbridge, houses, shops and a chapel along its 20 foot wide road. The bridge was also used as a form of social control throughout the Middle Ages. On the roof of a stone gatehouse, poles were erected to display the severed heads of traitors. It was here that the head of Oliver Cromwell ended up in 17th century. During the 13th century the old satirical song about London Bridge was updated to include the words, ‘ my fair Lady’ when it was feared it would fall down due to lack of maintenance from king Henry II’s Queen, Eleanor, who should have been spending the toll money on its upkeep. In 1831 a new London Bridge, built out of granite, replaced the old one which had outlived its 600 years. It was this bridge that was sold to Arizona, USA in 1973, for a sum of $2.5 million. The current one was constructed alongside the demolition of the 19th century one and has stood pathetically there ever since.
The Millennium Bridge connects Bankside on the south side of the Thames with the City of London and, at its northern end, there are spectacular views of St. Paul’s Cathedral to be had. In London, there has been a Cathedral dedicated to St Paul ever since the 7th century. The current Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built following the Fire of London in 17th century. With its massive but beautiful unsupported dome it is the second largest building of its type in the world. It has a very special place in the spiritual hearts of Londoners and throughout its history has been used to commemorate important events. It was here that Prince Charles married the then Lady Diana Spencer in the 1980s. Services have been held to celebrate the 80th birthdays of both the Queen and the Queen Mother and the Golden Jubilee celebrations were held in its beautiful and imposing interior. In its crypt you can find the tombs of Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill. A visit here is a must and the high point (if you will excuse the pun) is the climb up the winding, spiral staircase to the Whispering Gallery in the famous dome. If someone standing on one side of the dome whispers into the wall you really can hear it from the opposite side.
On the south side of the Millennium Bridge is the Globe Theatre. With its traditional structure and thatched roof, this theatre is an exact replica of The Globe which was built in 1599 by the playhouse company to which Shakespeare belonged. Indeed not only were his works performed here but he also had a financial share in it. It was closed down by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers in 1642 and destroyed two years later. It was always known that Shakespeare’s theatre had existed somewhere around Bankside on the Thames but it wasn’t until 1989 that the remains of its foundations were found beneath the car park of the Anchor Terrace on Park Street. Today, throughout the summer season, Shakespeare plays are performed here. They are produced to replicate how it was done during the time of the bard. There are no stage lights and no microphones and the audience stands around the open air central stage instead of sitting in upholstered seats.
Certainly an experience! As well as the theatre company there is the excellent Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition which covers all aspects of the performing and staging of Elizabethan plays. There is also the Globe Education which works with students of all ages in exploring the scripts of Shakespeare.
Behind the Globe Theatre is the new Modern Tate Art Gallery converted from a disused power station. Close to the museum, at Tower Bridge, is Sugar Quay which was the original destination for the cargo of Messrs Tate & Lyle, the sugar magnates. Their head office still dominates this site and Henry Tate, in the late 19th century funded the Tate Gallery at Milbank, further north past Westminster. This original gallery has now outgrown its building and this modern art museum, close to where Mr Tate made his fortune, is well placed in an area that historically has many links with his name.