I’d like to say this is going to be a cultural post, but in all honesty, it’s going to have some adrenaline thrown in with a dash of James Bond. Having said that, you get to see London’s most iconic sights with me, something I don’t talk about very often, as I prefer to showcase the lesser known side of London. But today, because I’m a little bit of a powerboat junkie, I’m back at the foot of the London Eye for a second serving of Thames Rockets, London’s fastest speedboat trip down the River Thames.
TripAdvisor consistently ranks Thames Rockets as London’s No 1 outdoor activity. And I’m not surprised. It’s perfect for thrill-seekers but also gives a totally unique, bankside view of London, stretching from the London Eye to Canary Wharf.
Our personal rocket for 12 people met us at the base of the London Eye. You can buy your tickets in advance or from the ticket office to the right. I went with my 11-year-old Anais, who also enjoyed the trip two years ago when we took her and friends as a birthday treat.
You don’t need to bring anything with you but a little bit of courage and some curiosity! Lifejackets were provided. There were no toilets on-board, but the facilities at the London Eye booking office could be used. I tucked my handbag under my feet on-board, and we were ready for take-off.
Each boat comes with a skipper and a guide. Geoff was our escort who entertained us with fun stories during the 50-minute Ultimate London Adventure. We set off adagio towards Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. At the top of the palace, the boat turned around and started heading east.
Hold on to your horses when you get past Tower Bridge. This is is when the adrenaline fun starts, when the engines rev up and go up to speeds of 30 knots (35mph). I put a video at the end of the post if you want to join me as we breeze down the Thames at breakneck speed.
No, this isn’t about Big Ben or even the London Eye, it’s about Westminster Bridge. The green colour on the bridge is painted the same colour as the leather seats in the House of Commons, in contrast to Lambeth Bridge, which is painted the same red as the leather seats in the House of Lords. Look out for the coat of arms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert when you go past the bridge. Fun Fact: the view from Westminster Pier to St Paul’s is protected. The curved design of the London Eye had to take this into account.
Cleopatra’s Needle (and her useless guard cats)
She has a sister in Paris and a twin in New York, but there is no real connection to her namesake, Cleopatra (the needles were already one thousand years old when the Queen of Egypt was alive). Cleopatra’s Needle was erected in 1878 after a dramatic journey from Alexandria through the temperamental Bay of Biscay. It was a miracle she ever got here in one piece.
The needle has a concealed time capsule in the front pedestal which contains 12 photographs of the best-looking women of the day as well as a baby bottle, a box of cigars and a portrait of Queen Victoria. The faux Egyptian sphinxes at the base were thought to have been incorrectly installed. Instead of guarding the needle outwards, they are facing in.
Harry’s Potter’s Bridge (the Wobbler)
It was once named the “Wobbly Bridge” due to reports of how it would sway. The bridge was subsequently closed for two years whilst repairs were made to fix the movement. It also wobbled away in the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, although this time, beyond repair.
The Walkie-Talkie (or Death Ray)
There was a major flaw with the Walkie-Talkie during construction: the architect failed to take into consideration the temperature of the glass during sunny days. Named the “Death Ray,” the beams that were projected off the building during hot days started melting the cars below. Oops! (You’ll be pleased to know you’re safe now thanks to the addition of a giant sunshade).
The Tower of London (or where Colonel Blood lost the family jewels)
In 1671, a Colonel Thomas Blood stole the Crown Jewels, but the heist ended in disaster when he dropped some of the loot on Tower Wharf. He managed to charm his way into a royal pardon from Charles II and even bagged himself a plot of land worth £500! If you’re familiar with David Walliams’s Gangsta Granny, then you will already have heard of the silver-tongued Colonel Blood.
Always remember to look up as you go under! Tower Bridge was painted red, white and blue for Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 but was restored to its original blue and white during the 2010 restoration. Do mention if there’s a birthday to the Thames Rocket guide, as chances are he will get the skipper to stop under the bridge with a birthday tune on the box.
The blot on the Thames
She’s 97 metres, cost £113 million and she has a full-size tennis court. Her name is Aviva, and she is tucked under Tower Bridge. Why she’s allowed to pollute our view of London’s bankside I’m not sure, but she certainly gets tongues wagging.
I’m sure you could fit a couple of tennis courts in the HMS Belfast as well, but you won’t find such silliness on-board. This museum ship is a floating storyteller, with more history in every one of her metallic pores than any other ship in the country. You can pay her daily homage, from 10am-6pm.
House fit for a Dame
That “small” pad on the left belongs to Dame Helen Mirren. She moved here to be close to East London’s vibrant art scene. At the foot of her house are the Wapping Old Stairs, a place which is popular with mudlarkers (shore scavengers) and archaeologists due to fragments, jetsam and flotsam that are washed ashore.
Va Va Voom!
This marks the spot where the Thames Rockets speeds up on its way east or slows down when heading back towards the London Eye. That’s because it’s home to the Metropolitan Police Marine. Unit. It’s a very handy location for the pub behind it, the Captain Kidd, don’t you think? The pub is named after the seventeenth century pirate, William Kidd, who was executed at Execution Dock.
The Mayflower pub with a star-spangled banner
Look for the pub with a star-spangled banner on its deck. The Mayflower Pub is supposed to be London’s oldest and dates back to the 1550s, when it was originally called The Shippe. The Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World aboard the Mayflower Ship which was docked at the pub’s landing steps. The watering-hole was renamed The Mayflower in 1957. It is now the only pub in the UK licenced to sell stamps, and if you’re a descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers, make sure you sign the Mayflower Descendants Book.
Thames Rockets won’t take you as far as Canary Wharf but you will get a great view of London’s West India Docks before you turn around and head back out west.
Pub on the Thames
Yep, there’s a pub on a boat, right opposite the drop-off. I can’t vouch the quality of the fayre, but it has a decent menu and serves martinis and Pimm’s Trifle, which surely has to be a good thing after all that stirring and shaking?
Fancy London’s fastest speedboat trip? The Ultimate London Adventure with Thames Rockets costs £39.50 per adult and £29.50 for under 14s. There are several trip options including themed trips during Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Easter.
I was a guest of Thames Rockets, but as always, all views are my opinionated own.