The boat is already waiting for me as I scurry down North Greenwich Pier on the coldest day of the entire winter. It’s been gritted but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to slip and that might cost me the boat. In fact, when I look up from making sure my feet are in the right place, I realise there are two boats waiting. I approach the westernmost one and ask the lad at the gangplank where this boat is going.
“Westminster,” is the response. That’ll do. I’m westward-bound, although I haven’t decided exactly where I’m going.
The Thames Clippers are the red-headed stepchildren of the TfL network. We all know the Tube and the red double-decker buses and the black taxis but who ever talks about the river buses? I thought there was nothing to say about London that hasn’t already been said ten thousand times and then ten thousand more but it turns out there is.
The Clippers are an odd beast. On the flagship route, RB1, the east half is 99% commuter transport, moving banking-types from their tiny flats around east London to the glass & steel heart of Docklands. The west half is a tourist route, the speed plummeting as you pass Tower Bridge and the passenger numbers rocketing. It’s a good and cheap way to see a lot of the sights but it’s not as exciting or raw as the east half.
The easternmost pier is Woolwich Royal Arsenal but the Clippers only operate a limited service there in the morning and evening. Most of the time, the first stop is going to be North Greenwich and that’s where I start my journey. You can buy a paper ticket from the machine at the top of the jetty but there are so many price variations and I’m not sure whether “Travelcard” means my Oyster card, so rather than waste time faffing around with it, I just touch in with the Oyster as I board. Odd how Oyster feels so mundane and yet doing exactly the same thing with my contactless debit card feels like crashing into the future.
I’ve been on the Clippers before but I’m still excited. With a top speed of 28 knots (32mph), this is the fastest means of transport in London – although in the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that Waterloo to North Greenwich by Jubilee Line is six stops and twelve minutes whereas the return journey by catamaran to the London Eye is fifty-six minutes. But the average Tube speed is just 20mph so despite it being obviously measurably slower somehow, they get to claim truthfully that the boats are faster.
It’s a few minutes before we take off – and I mean take off. The catamaran sounds and feels like it’s jet-powered. The acceleration is incredible and we leave two long lines of toiling white water in our wake. The engines roar, the whole boat vibrates and the brown water is sprayed over the open rear deck in the finest of mists. A group of men with London accents (who later identify the north entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel as the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Power Station as Battersea Power Station) are taken by surprise. I can see why there are notices up requesting that passengers remain seated while the catamaran is moving at speed. I can also see why people don’t remain seated. I certainly don’t – but then, I know how to lean against a pillar so I don’t get thrown around.
Quite honestly, despite the boat being 125 feet long, I feel like James Bond in a hijacked motor launch, especially as we screech around that fantastic loop that almost encloses the Millennium Dome (give it another ten years; I might consent to call it the O2). I half expect to end up on top of the dome, battling a baddie and be rescued by a flying contraption. There is nothing else in the whole of London that comes anywhere near that thrill.
We pass another Clipper doing much the same speed and now I really appreciate the waves we’re causing as our low-slung vessel bounces over their waves. Now we’ve changed genres; now we’re part of a pirate battle during a ferocious storm.
The ripples die away. We’re still flying down the river at, frankly, incredible speeds that must be approaching illegal. We stop at one of the small piers serving residential riverside areas. Not as busy there today as it probably is at 8am on a weekday – this is absolutely a commuter stop. I’m surprised to see an official – and quite threatening-looking – notice about what to do if you’re bringing an animal from overseas into the UK. And fair enough, our anti-rabies policies have worked well over the decades. But whose first point of contact with this country, rather than an airport or sea port, is Masthead Terrace Pier? The only people I can think of who might go zooming blithely up the Thames without telling passport control that they’re here are Bond villains with those motor launches. Maybe I’ll end up in a rooftop battle after all.
I plan to get off when the boat loses speed at Tower Bridge but I’m too lazy and it’s a long way up the bankside to Tower Hill DLR so I continue to Westminster where the entrance to the Tube is cut virtually into the side of the bank. For the first time, I realise all those big heavy doors installed in Tube stations aren’t bomb blast doors, they’re flood defences.
There’s only one thing to do. After a morning fighting imaginary enemy spies, I take the Tube to Victoria and walk up to Buckingham Palace to receive an imaginary medal from the Queen. And then cross Green Park to walk to the bookshop on Piccadilly only to discover I’m the only woman in London – possibly the world – to get the memo that there’s a big march happening.