It’s the one form of public transport no one remembers – yet it’s only recently fallen from favour. For centuries it was the quickest way to get around town, and it’s still the most civilised. I’m not talking about the pleasure boats here – though I’m going to do a trip soon, just for the kick of it – I’m talking about the river bus, designed for and used by people going to work each day.
I have been meaning to join a commuter clipper at rush hour for some time now – and yesterday I actually managed it. I took a train to London Bridge and walked to Bankside Pier (just outside the Globe Theatre.) The little booth was shut (of course) and the signs seemed to imply that everything stopped at 4.30pm. That surely couldn’t be right? But the place was empty and there was no traffic at all on the river. It’s all part of the British Tourist Disinformation Service, clearly.
I was just about to give up when I saw a determined-looking guy with a briefcase striding down to the deserted platform. He clearly knew what he was doing so I hung around. A minute or two later, a small launch appeared up river and suddenly half a dozen people with briefcases materialised out of nowhere. Perhaps it’s uncool to be seen queueing if you’re one of that elite band The River-Rovers…
It’s all very matey. A jolly chap in shirtsleeves hooks a rope over a bollard, and the boat bumps gently into the row of tractor tyres against the pier. He holds the launch close to the edge and greets you as you enter. A jolly young conductor in a suit and tie welcomes you aboard. In fact it’s all – well – jolly.
And that gives me a great idea. I’ll Make A Million. I can just see it now. I’ll pitch it to CBeebies as a new TV programme for the under-fives – Jim and Ben the ClipperMen. Jim and Ben will be made out of foam rubber and will have merry stop-motion animated tales helping the commuters of London get to work. There would never be anything so uncivilised as terrorists or srikes on something as civilised as the Thames Clipper, of course. Perhaps one day a kitten will get stuck on a branch in the river or a naughty thief will try to steal a big diamond from the Savoy. Jim and Ben will come to the rescue. There’s a hit Christmas single in it too-
(-that’s enough children’s TV – Ed)
So I got on board. Many of the seats were already taken by people with laptops or reading the paper. (Yes, London Lite has permeated even here. Whatever next? The Reform Club, perhaps?) No one was paying any attention to the view, except a couple of EXTREMELY fat tourists who kept complaining about how small the seats were (they were fine.)
Mind you, to be honest there wasn’t much view to be had. The boat sat low in the water and the windows were so filthy with spray that it reminded me of buses in the 1970s whose windows were so caked with dirt you couldn’t actually tell where you were. But this is the River. It’s to be expected. And if you’re not looking for detail there’s still plenty to be seen – and from an angle you wouldn’t normally get to view London from.
The river bus stops a lot more than I had expected. There is an express service, but being a rank beginner, I couldn’t work out when it was. The website does help – but of course I hadn’t bothered consulting it first. The commuter service goes all the way to Woolwich but it doesn’t stop at the Dome – you have to get the designated “O2 Express for that.” Jim comes round to clip your ticket – ever wondered what happened to the bus conductors of Olde London Town? They’re on the river, folks.
I was surprised by how many people got on and off at each stop. The clipper really did fill up (though we are talking about 5.30pm – bang in the middle of the rush hour) and it seemed to be with people that do this every day. It takes longer – about 40 minutes from Bankside to Greenwich – and costs a bit more – £ 4, or £ 2.70 if you’ve got a travelcard, but you get a seat, people are polite and it’s a much more visceral experience. You bob about on the water, you see curious and interesting things through the murky glass (it’s not that bad, honest) and, cheesy though it may sound, you get a sense of continuity with the millions of Londoners who have used the river for the last thousand or so years. Besides – you get to meet Jim and Ben… And that view of Greenwich as the boat turns the bend in the river is one that I will never tire of. The Naval College, the Observatory on the hill – even the poor old Cutty Sark in her undies – wonderful.
As we were approaching Greenwich, Jim – or was it Ben – brought round newsletters for everyone. Apparently they’ve just taken delivery of four fab new vessels which will be much bigger and higher (better views, too, I hope) and will have cafes and bars. They’re also expecting to expand the service. It read a bit like gobbledegook to me who was on the service for the first time, but what it boils down to seems to be including the Dome (oops, O2) from November and to be more frequent at peak times.
Give it a try, folks. And look out for those new launches – from the pics, they look damn fine.