Cruising London: Photo tour

Last Saturday I spent a leisurely three hours on the Museum of London‘s Frost Fairs cruise along the River Thames.

Frost Fairs are a rare occurrence in the pages of London’s history. They were held when a combination of winter-y elements meant that the River Thames froze over and created a lot of excitement for Londoners. Our Museum of London host told us that the earliest Frost Fair was likely to have occurred in 1114-1115 between Westminster and London Bridges when all sorts of activities  – shopping, drinking and eating, and games like skittles and ice-skating – were at the disposal of those who dared to venture out onto the river’s icy surface.

But it was a double-edged sword as while many entrepreneurs and well-to-do celebrated this rarity, a third of Londoners depended on the river for their livelihood and so were left destitute when they could no longer ply their many trades.

The last Frost Fair occurred in 1814-1815: Once the old London Bridge was demolished and the new bridge – constructed by John Rennie and opening in 1831 – was in place, a more free-flowing river was created, giving little opportunity for ice to “dam up”.

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Cruising under Rennie’s London Bridge

So last weekend I made my way along the embankment to Westminster Pier, boarded the Pride of London and took my place on the upper deck. It was one of those grey London days – not as pretty as a crisp blue-sky day but it did lend something quite atmospheric to the usual view. Here’s a little photo tour of my time on board.

Big Ben vs Boudicca

Boudicca vs Big Ben – looking up from Westminster Pier gives you this great perspective.

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Blackfriars Bridge – trains stopping at Blackfriars Station actually stop on the bridge.

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No Thames cruise photo tour would be complete without a shot of Tower Bridge

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I loved this row of old bankside houses – the two building to the left of the row stand like sentries at the entrance to one of the many channels that branch off the river.

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The cruise took us all way downstream to the Isle of Dogs and the Greenwich Peninsula, the latter being home to the Millenium Dome (or as it’s now known, the O2 Arena). It does look like some sort of alien ship has landed.

Greenwich 1

This is the Royal Naval College in Greenwich – you can see the Royal Observatory in the background (which by the way is a great place to visit.)

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And this is the famous Cutty Sark, just a hop step and jump away from the Naval College

Along the route back, the daylight had started to fade and I spent most of the time just watching the bank glide by, the wake from the various river craft creating foamy ripples along the shore. Before long, we were cruising past the modern shapes of London’s City Hall and The Shard…

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London’s City Hall is the curved building on the left and look how the tiny white-lit Christmas tree mirrors The Shard that overshadows it.

…and London’s lights glowed in the dusk as we continued to cruise back towards Westminster.

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Southwark Bridge

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The London Eye

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Passing under Westminster Bridge gave me this atmospheric view of the Houses of Parliament’s Victoria Tower

Soon it was a quick under and back again with Westminster Bridge, a gentle drift towards Westminster Pier and with my head full of what I’d seen and heard, I disembarked and headed home.

I am a big fan of the events put on by the Museum of London and this was such a great way to spend a few grey and blustery hours on a Saturday afternoon. So I hope you enjoyed this little photo tour a fraction as much as I enjoyed for real.

9 minutes of glory

When I first visited London in 2000, I was smitten by all of the things that a tourist to this great city is usually smitten by – the iconic images seen in movies, read about in books and learnt about in high school. That it’s all real is amazing. That it’s all so old is inspiring.

I loved both history and literature at school and so was especially keen to visit Westminster Bridge, having been inspired by William Wordsworth’s Composed upon Westminster Bridge, 3rd September 1802:

...The City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning.

When I stood on the bridge just over 14 years ago, snapping eagerly away at the gilded clock tower of Big Ben, its face smiling benignly over the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, little did I imagine that I would ever walk beneath those historic spires on a daily basis.

For the last 18 months, I have been based in an office less than 500 metres away from these icons of London. Each morning, I emerge from Westminster tube station beneath that resplendent clock tower and walk the 0.4 of a mile to the office (about 9 minutes) with Westminster Palace at my elbow to the left and Westminster Abbey just across the road to my right. And then I get to do it all again – in reverse – on my way home.

I am regularly filled with this feeling of delighted disbelief – when the little voice whispers softly in my head, ‘This is my life. I really did this.’ I can’t help but smile. It seems impossible to be immune to this sense of wonder and I remain astounded that it has not yet paled. Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’ – I know what he means.

In those moments of wonder, I find myself pausing for a little longer in an attempt to capture the moment. My Facebook friends know only too well how much I love to snap and share and in doing a little phone gallery spring cleaning the other day, I was so struck by the range of photos I had taken in the last few weeks that I wanted to share them with you too.

So welcome to my commute…

Arriving at the top of the stairs at Westminster tube station, I pop into a nearby coffee shop and emerge with cup – and often camera phone – in hand to this…

underground sign

A short walk takes me to the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Square giving me this view of the Houses of Parliament (Westminster Palace) as I cross the road…

Westminster Palace from Whitehall

…this view of Whitehall – which leads past Downing Street and up to Trafalgar Square – over my right shoulder…

Looking down Whitehall

…and the clock tower to my left. This particular shot was taken in the afternoon but sometimes I get my timings right and my commute is accompanied by the deep chimes of Big Ben heralding the hour.

Big Ben

I walk right past the Palace – this was taken from the end of the palace building looking back towards the tube station (now hidden behind the walls of Westminster Hall).

Return journey

Looking upwards provides another spectacular view, this time of Victoria Tower which houses the Norman Porch and the Sovereign’s Entrance – this is the only route that the Queen is allowed to use to enter the building (which she most famously does each year at the State Opening of Parliament.)

Norman Porch

Taken from the same place but on a different day and in another direction, this is Westminster Abbey, home to the Coronation Chair (Westminster Abbey has been the church for every coronation since 1066), Poet’s Corner and the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. The two square towers are the ‘back’ of the main entrance.

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Just last week I captured the afternoon light streaming through the stained glass of the Abbey’s windows…

Abbey Windows

…and this 700 year old building doesn’t look too shabby at night either.

Abbey night

And then the glowing clock face marks my return to Westminster station again. This picture was taken by pausing during my normally rapid clip along the concourse that runs back towards Westminster Bridge and the stairs down to the tube.

Big Ben framed

So that is my commute peeps. Well 9 minutes of it anyway and in a total of 40 minutes – that’s an awesome and glorious 22.5%. Every. Single. Day.

(Except Saturdays and Sundays and Bank Holidays and vacation days and…oh well you get the picture.)

Let’s face it, if I’ve got to commute anywhere, I’m rather glad that it is this one.

The halls of power

Here I am on the last of my 5 day Easter staycation and today has been a committed pyjama day. I’ve lazed about with Audrey for a bit, been inspired by a couple of episodes of The Great British Bake Off Series 1 (the series I missed!) and am starting to prepare for a work trip tomorrow with a bit of feel-good Whoopi Goldberg (in Sister Act II) in the background.

Quite frankly, it’s a rather fab way to finish things.

But the long weekend has not been spent in a haze of nothing-ness and sloth. I’ve caught up with friends, been for a flotation tank session, and added a couple of newly discovered gems to my figurative album of London Love. I wrote about my dip into Camden Market in my last post and on Saturday I immersed myself in another cultural melting pot with a tour of the Houses of Parliament.

As I walked through security and emerged on the other side of those black iron gates, I felt a little frisson of excitement. I was soon to learn that entry to the Palace of Westminster is not restricted to those on tours but I felt the sense of history and importance enfold me in its gothic embrace all the same.

Taken from the entrance to Westminster Hall

The tour was absolutely amazing. Meeting our guide in the magnificent Westminster Hall, we headed up the stairs and along the corridors to start our story in the Norman Porch right at the top of the stairs where the Queen herself enters each year for the State Opening of Parliament. 75 minutes of anecdotes, architecture and atmosphere later we left the Commons Chamber and headed back to Westminster Hall to be surrounded by King William Rufus’ 6ft thick walls from 1097, the place where it all began.

Westminster Hall looking back towards the entrance.

For the first half of the tour, we scuttled along behind our tour guide in the footsteps of our sovereign, from the top of the stairs under the Norman Porch through the Queen’s Robing Room, down the Royal Gallery and into the Lords Chamber. We stopped to marvel at the copy of the Magna Carta and the death warrant of Charles II and gazed at the massive portraits of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo in the Royal Gallery.

The Lords Chamber was quite spectacular. The throne is the piece d’resistance, covered with gold and filigree and is in stark contrast to the Woolpack in front of it, the seat of The Lord Speaker and a homage to the importance of wool in Britain’s economic past.

It was also under the Lords Chamber that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. The plot was aimed at killing the Catholic sovereign King James I by blowing up the Palace during the Opening of Parliament in 1605. A ceremonial check is still carried out as part of the State Opening preparations to ensure that no gunpowder lies beneath the Palace and the plot’s failure is celebrated each year on November 5th with effigies of the captured traitor Guy Fawkes burnt on bonfires around the country.

Illustration by George Cruikshank in 1840 – source: Wikipedia

After an explanation on the ceremony surrounding the State Opening of Parliament and a tally of the roles of the various types of Lords, we were off again, down the Peers Corridor, towards the Central Lobby.

Did you know that the word ‘lobbying’ was first coined to reflect the activity in this space? It’s the place where any voter can enter and request to speak to their Member of Parliament via the Reception Desk located there – members who are present in the ‘House’ are obliged to come to the Central Lobby to meet their constituent who ‘lobbies’ them although it might pay to check that they are ‘in’ before traipsing down to Westminster and being subjected to security screening.

A hurried scamper down the Commons Corridor brought us to the Members’ Lobby, a working space for the parliamentarians complete with electronic message board and four rather formidable statues of Britain’s former Prime Ministers – Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd-George and Margaret Thatcher. And this segues nicely into our next stop and the penultimate section of the tour – the Commons Chamber.

The House of Commons is comprised of our Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected by voters in their respective constituencies. This is where David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and their ministers meet to debate the issues of the day, initiating and amending laws (called Bills) which pass to and from the Houses of Lords and Commons through quite a series of checks and balances before coming into legislation.

Voting in the Houses is also very transparent with the positions of the Members shown by their physical movement out of the Chamber into two neighbouring passages known as the Yes and No Lobbies. (In the case of the Lords, these are the corridors of Content or Not Content).

Finally we found ourselves back in Westminster Hall. The hall has served many purposes in its 1000 year history including housing the Law Courts, hosting famous speakers like Nelson Mandela and Pope Benedict XVI, the first visit by a Pope since the Reformation in the 16th Century, and the laying in state of the Queen Mother following her death in August 2009.

Britain’s links to the rest of the world were laid bare in the entertaining story-telling of our guide, Isabel and with my head crammed full of fascinating facts and anecdotes, I was glad that I’d decided to invest in the official guidebook so that I could revisit our political past in far more detail and at my leisure.

With the tour over, it was time to brave the chill outside again and with my guidebook tucked firmly under my arm, I couldn’t wait to get on the tube and lose myself between the covers. Certainly when I next emerge from Westminster tube station – to be greeted by Big Ben and the gothic spires of the palace – it will hold a whole new meaning for me and getting in to Prime Minster’s Question Time might just be next on my To-Do List of London.


Notes:

  1. Unfortunately, there are no photos permitted once the tour leaves Westminster Hall but there is an official flickr site if you’d like to see more. 
  2. I’ve also reviewed the Tour on Weekend Notes so for a slightly different perspective (as well as information on costs and opening times), click here.