Earlier this week, as I headed home on the Thames Clipper, marvelling at the beautiful city I live in, I had a realisation. I’ve finally worked out why I know I’ll never live in North London. Why that part of the city will never feel like home. It’s because North Londoners have no concept of the river being a large part of their city. It doesn’t shape their existence like it does for the rest of us. Well, except on the occasions they get invited south of it for the evening and inevitably decline.
Growing up in Marlow-on-Thames means that I’ve always had a strong connection to the river. After attending university in Manchester and then remaining there for a few more years, I moved to London and was worried I wouldn’t be able to cope with the intensity of a massive and supposedly unfriendly city after nearly a decade in an easily walkable and supremely chatty metropolis. What saved me from being overwhelmed by London was my old friend, the Thames.
My first job in the capital was in Waterloo and being near the river helped me to acclimatise to this huge, hectic, overcrowded city because sitting on a bench on the South Bank at lunch time gave me a sense of calm and space in all that chaos. Thankfully this was in the autumn as, once the weather warmed up and the tourists returned, this area becomes somewhat less peaceful! I’ll also never forget the times in that first year when I walked across Waterloo Bridge to attend meetings at another site and was struck by the beautiful view. I still marvel at it after almost a decade in the city.
Living near the river, on the south side, you quickly become an expert in all the ways to cross it. My absolute favourite is the most beautiful (Tower Bridge), but the functional Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge offer views from them that more than make up for their own lack of beauty. If you fancy a leisurely stroll, there’s the Millennium Bridge but for speed, the DLR tunnel at Woolwich must surely be the quickest crossing. The absolute slowest must be the Blackwall tunnel in heavy traffic, although the 20mph speed limit of the Rotherhithe Tunnel is pretty slow too and makes you feel like you should be in a horse-drawn carriage.
The oldest under-river crossing is the Thames Tunnel, now used for the East London Line, which is apparently the world’s first underwater tunnel and was built in 1843. The newest crossing is also perhaps the most ridiculous – even though it doesn’t link places that anyone has needed to travel between since the 2012 Olympics ended, the Emirates Air Line does have a rather lovely view. The most quaint river crossing surely has to be the Woolwich Ferry.
Whether you’re trundling into Charing Cross on a train – admiring a glorious view of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye – marching through the Greenwich foot tunnel, or traversing the Thames on the excellent Clipper service, the river quite rightly feels like the heart of the city. It certainly has the power to hit you there with that feeling of “wow, this city is breathtakingly beautiful.” My best friend and fellow riverside dweller Amanda described the glorious night time view of London from the river as ‘the city in her date night dress’. As the Thames is a tidal river, she can also tell if she’s running late by the height of the water. I really can’t imagine a daily London existence without it.