Compared to London on foot, our water journey today is literally a breeze! Armed with "Red Rover" tickets on City Cruises (£16.20 for
adults), we engage on a
leisurely boat ride from Westminster's impressive Parliament Buildings to Greenwich and back.
Camera at the ready, we pass all the major attractions including an impressive panoramic view of
Canary Wharf, aka Little Manhattan, developed in 1987 by Canadian
Paul Reichmann, with
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's active encouragement. Reichmann headed Olympia & York, which also built the World Financial Center in New York City. Today, Canary Wharf is home to more than 100,000 workers and 15m sq ft of offices, shops and leisure space.
Also on the north bank, is the area known as the
Docklands, once the thriving commercial heart of the Port of London. Now the remaining buildings, which line parts of both banks of the river, have been converted into luxury apartments.
Near the far end of the snaking Thames, we are ready to explore Greenwich with its beautiful parks and buildings. Royal Greenwich is the birthplace of
King Henry VIII and the site of the
Greenwich Meridian, the point from which all time zones are defined. It is also home to a group of fascinating Royal museums including the Queen's House, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Old Naval College and also the famous tea clipper, the
Cutty Sark which recently reopened following a disastrous fire in 2006.
Near the Cutty Sark, a strange, circular domed building contains the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened on August 4, 1902. It connects Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs, (where Henry VIII kept his hunting dogs) on the northern side of the River Thames.
We amble around the sleek British clipper, a fast, yacht-like vessel with three masts and a square rig. Built on the Clyde in 1869, she was one of the last tea clippers, as sailing ships gave way to steam propulsion. The
opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also meant that steam ships enjoyed a much shorter route to China, so Cutty Sark spent only a few years on the tea trade before turning to Australian wool, where for ten years, she held the record time, racing back to Britain.
The town is an easy walk, and we poke our heads into many quaint shops. It was a popular resort in the 18th century, and many grand houses were built here, such as Vanbrugh Castle (1717) established on Maze Hill, next to the extensive park. Georgian and Victorian architecture dominate the town centre, and there is a one-way system around a covered market that dates from 1700.
The palace was the principal residence of Henry VII whose sons Henry (later Henry VIII) and Edmund Tudor were born here, and baptized in St Alphege's. Henry extended Greenwich Palace and it became his principal London seat until Whitehall Palace was built in the 1530s. Henry VIII married
Catherine of Aragon and
Anne of Cleves at Greenwich, and both Mary (February 18, 1516) and Elizabeth (September 7, 1533) were born at Greenwich. His son Edward VI also died here at age 15.
The palace fell into disrepair during the
English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by
Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation. The historic rooms within these buildings remain open to the public; other buildings are used by University of Greenwich and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
A large, scenic park rises towards Blackheath, and at the top of this hill, I find a statue of
James Wolfe, the British commander who captured Québec. Here, tourists take a rest from the steep climb and enjoy the panoramic view of the palace and grounds far below, now a UNESCO historical site.
We walk by several fenced off buildings including the former Royal Observatory where the Prime Meridian passes through. There is no longer a working astronomical observatory here, but a large red ball drops daily to mark the exact moment of 1 p.m., and there is a museum of astronomical and navigational tools, particularly John Harrison's marine chronometers.
We wind our way back down to the dock area to return to Westminster. With Red Rover tickets, we can hop on and off at any of four piers - Westminster, London Eye, Tower of London and Greenwich. Cruises depart every 30 minutes, every day of the week.
On the return trip, we bask in British history: under Southwark Bridge, a replica of
Sir Francis Drake's ship, the
Golden Hinde, used to circumnavigate the globe and defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588; London skyscrapers, Europe's tallest building, the 310 metre high Shard; another nicknamed the Gherkin looking more like a large bullet, covered in a spiral pattern of tinted glass;
Traitors Gate where many were taken into the Tower;
HMS Belfast whose mighty guns could hurl a 500 lb shell over 14 miles; the office of the Mayor of London, the new County Hall; the big red brick
Tate Modern art gallery; 365 feet high
St. Paul's Cathedral, for 250 years the tallest building in London;
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre;
Millennium Bridge known locally as the "wibbly wobbly" bridge after a initial design problem caused it to sway;
Cleopatra's Needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk guarded by two lions. (It has a twin in New York's Central Park.);
Whitehall and the
Cenotaph, a memorial to soldiers, the site of the Remembrance Day ceremony every November and finally, the massive
London Eye, at 135 metres, the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe.
On this return trip from Greenwich, I count six bridges - Westminster, Waterloo, Blackfriars, Southwark, London and Tower. City Cruise's informative commentary has illustrated 2000 years of London's history for us today, and we have explored Greenwich, which I highly recommend.
Nelson's ship Victory in a bottle, Greenwich, photo by Mike Keenan
City Hall, London, City Cruises on the Thames, Photo by Mike Keenan
London's Greenwich- one of the world's top 10 destinations
Greenwich, England - Time To Travel
Mike Keenan writes for Postmedia Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.