Royal Victoria to the Cutty Sark: the mundane way and the fun way

Last weekend, I went to London for the Greenwich Comedy Festival (yes, it was good but the seats were a little uncomfortable – especially for those of us sitting right out at the sides – and I found it a little bit chilly). Greenwich, being out in the east of London, is a difficult place for me to get home from at night, so I opted to stay in London overnight and because I’m super-organised, I… ummm, didn’t book anywhere until the Thursday night before I went on Saturday, with the result that I ended up at the Ibis just outside the ExCeL. On a map, it looks more or less like the same area, just across the river, a couple of stops on the Docklands Light Railway, no problem. In reality, it’s at least two changes, possibly three, unless you have the thinking-outside-the-box powers to change at Westferry, which I didn’t.

Now, I like the DLR. It’s more or less automatic; it doesn’t have a driver and instead has unimpeded windows at the front. Children of all ages – from literal children right up to elderly people – like to sit at the front and pretend they’re driving the train (I admit to being quite intolerant of literal children getting those coveted seats – when they’re adults, then they can have them, if they can beat me to them). But I’m always a little bit nervous travelling on it – I’m never 100% sure where I should be touching in and out with my Oyster card – if I arrive at a station by Tube and then change to the DLR without exiting the station, do I still need to touch in on the DLR platforms? Or have I just touched myself out? I wouldn’t mind but the DLR has frequent ticket inspections and I don’t want to be caught having got just a bit too confused, which is why I’ll often go for a paper day ticket because then I know I’m covered.

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Anyway. I digress. The DLR is a mundane way to travel, especially if you’re only trying to cover 2.2 miles and have to change three times and it takes thirty-five minutes (and takes about 3.7 miles, incidentally).

On Sunday, I woke up to a blue sky and brilliant sunshine and a view of Emirates Royal Docks terminal from my hotel window. I had a brilliant idea. Knowing there was a pub just by Cutty Sark station where I could get breakfast, I thought I’d retrace my steps from the evening before but by a more interesting route.

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The Emirates Air Line was opened in June 2012, just in time for the 2012 London Olympics next door, although they claim this was a coincidence. I beg to disagree. Given that a cable car, the price of which is not included in your day ticket or travelcard or season pass or whatever Londoners use to commute, is not the most practical way of actually getting around London, this thing is a tourist attraction, in one of the less attractive parts of London, where there isn’t much else to attract tourists beside the o2. That it just happened to open, by dumb luck, in time for the biggest influx of tourists the area will ever experience seems like quite the coincidence to me.

Anyway, I played the tourist and went for a ride, from Royal Docks (a couple of minutes’ walk from Royal Victoria) on the north side of the river to Greenwich Peninsula (a couple of minutes’ walk from North Greenwich) on the south side.

It’s just over a kilometre long and it takes about ten minutes, with views over Canary Wharf (by which I mean the shiny glass financial redevelopment rather than just the tall tower actually named One Canada Square), the o2, Trinity Buoy Wharf and Greenwich Observatory is supposed to be visible but I failed to observe it. They call it a flight and you buy a boarding pass rather than a ticket and then you hop on the gondola and take off, up to ninety metres above the river, give or take tide level changes. The gondolas take up to ten people or you can hire a private one for about £90 – seems unnecessary when no one else is going to try to jump into your ten-person gondola when there are already ten of you trying to get in it for normal price. I got lucky, I got a gondola to myself. Well, I say I got lucky – this thing is not exactly quite as packed as the Piccadilly Line at Leicester Square. There was a short queue in front of me and people boarding in twos and threes, no one attempting to board with a group of strangers, and there was no one behind me.

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When I landed, I had the option of walking down the road for three minutes and rejoining the Jubilee Line at North Greenwich but that’s boring. Instead I ambled down to the river and eyed the catamaran speculatively.

I’ve never been on the boats before. Oyster payment came in two days after I was there and so I bought a paper ticket in the old-fashioned away, although you get a discount on the standard price for holding an Oyster card. It’s also one price, no matter how far you go, like the buses, which was frustrating – it cost me the same for my initial eight-minute journey from North Greenwich to Greenwich as it did after breakfast for the forty-five minute journey from Greenwich to the London Eye – and the nice man who operated the machine for me at North Greenwich found the Oyster discount, which I failed to find when I bought my own ticket at Greenwich, and so had to pay full price – which I didn’t realise, because I assumed the price varied with distance, which it doesn’t.

But pricing aside, the catamarans are amazing! I’ve never been on them before and I’m a total convert. They go up to about 40mph, which makes them one of the fastest means of transport in London and you can really feel it as you go flying down the river, sending little waves rolling out to either side, zooming past the o2 and feeling like James Bond in the opener of The World Is Not Enough, wind blowing in your hair. It’s exhilarating. I loved it. I disembarked at Greenwich determined to get back on as soon as I’d had my breakfast.

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The downside is that there are speed limits on the Thames – which is, after all, an extraordinarily busy waterway – which appear to apply from just a little way west of Canary Wharf, so if you want the speed and the fun – which you do – you want to do the eastern part of the journey. It’s also the quietest because the bulk of the tourists get on west of Tower Bridge and then there just isn’t room on the small outside portion at the back. I thought it was most unfair that you’re not allowed to stand on the nose of the catamaran and once it got going, I understood exactly why you’re not allowed.

So, in conclusion – the cable car is a novelty to be done once, if you fancy seeing London from above. The catamaran is an utter joy.