One of the nice things about having overseas visitors is that you get to do things you normally wouldn’t be seen dead doing. Today, for instance, I swapped my usual train ride for an altogether more touristy form of transport. Don’t worry – not an open-topped bus (I’d rather have hives) but a river tour down to Greenwich and the Thames Barrier, something I’ve always had a sneaking yen to see. My heart sank when I realised we were going to get a commentary but this was very much the unofficial version of London (sample snippet: ‘Tate Modern, which is absolutely free to visit and if you’ve ever seen any modern art you’ll know why’) – mostly a catalogue of the various millennium construction disasters from the teething problems of the London Eye to the wobbly bridge and beyond, interspersed with cynical asides about Mayor Ken and some genuinely interesting bits of information. Very much the taxi-driver school of tour guiding and worth the price of admission alone. The Barrier itself is pretty impressive and as an added bonus the looming black clouds from the ‘drought’ made for some dramatic lighting. Altogether the best way of spending a wet Wednesday in May that I can think of and certainly better than work.
On the way back our guide was silent and the whole thing began to feel more like a real bus journey and less like a pleasure trip. There was even the statutory mad woman bending the ear of two hapless tourists while everyone else desperately stared out of the window to avoid catching her eye, or buried themselves in their books. And I even got a discount with my season ticket so it wasn’t that expensive – 7 quid return, not much more than my regular journey to work. The various piers are London Transport branded and look as much like bus stations as they possibly can. And it got me thinking. I’ve lived in London, on and off, all my life and yet this was the first time I’d ever been on the Thames here. It’s time to take our river back from the party boats and the tour trips, and use it for getting around once more. After all – as I remembered as we stepped onto Westminster Bridge to walk home – the tourists have taken over everywhere else.