One question went unsaid during TfL’s public consultation on Thames river crossings: Which crossing is the most fun?
This is what happens when you allow adults to hold meetings without booze.
Someone must have snuck something strong in to propose the Garden Bridge, but for us in the East, there are much more prosaic crossings proposed: the Silvertown Tunnel and bridges at Thamesmead, Belvedere and somewhere near Dartford. The schemes will cost between £3bn and £7bn to build and will provide desperate motorists with brand spanking new places in which to sit in traffic.
Almost everyone says we need more crossings over in Eastern London. Almost no one thinks we won’t be having the same conversation in 30 years’ time, unless we tackle the root of the problem, our car use. But who cares about the future when you can sit alone in a temperature controlled marketeer’s dream, idly chugging out poison and listening to Taylor Swift whilst arguing with your sat nav?
But despite the desperation for more crossings, Greenwich Council are backing the closure of the Woolwich Free Ferry (see update below for latest news), along with the building of a bridge at Thamesmead (Gallions Reach). The boats need replacing or refurbing, would need to increase capacity and it sounds like they just can’t be arsed with it. But then they hadn’t figured it would feature in Deserter’s Top Ten Thames River Crossings of All Time.
Woolwich Free Ferry
There’s a vast space underneath the vehicle platform with lots of seating but no other facility. As a kid I would sail across the Thames and back imagining I was journeying to far off lands, like Jamaica, India or Tilbury. Now, much of it is roped off and you are told to get off the ferry after one leg of the journey just in case you had any idea of enjoying yourself.
It is hardly used by passengers, understandably. Who wants to go to North Woolwich? But is it really the best we can do? What’s wrong with some cocktails (2 for 1? Or preferably, 3 for 1?) on a floating bar going backwards and forwards on the river. Given the enormous creativity that Shunt, Secret Cinema and The Vaults have brought to unpromising spaces, could we not do better than roping it off and telling people to get off?
Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels
Ah, peace at last. They’re not places you want to go when the lifts are on strike, but there’s a certain pleasing sensation in being several metres below the river in a tiled tunnel, dry as a bone. It’s like you’re giving the finger to physics. Spooky and atmospheric, it’s somehow better than being stuck in traffic outside the Blackwall.
And then, after a brief stroll you arrive in another world, where the buses are still red and they still take pounds, but the view across the river is much better.
I suppose I should give it the correct name: The Emirates Air Line. Not exactly bowing to public demand for a crossing from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, the cable car is none the less a fabulous way to cross the river. Stunningly efficient, it gives you great views, an interesting commentary and when you get to the other side, there is a a bar floating in the dock and a wakeboarding boozerie to make it all worthwhile. I was pleased to find wakeboarding has nothing whatsoever to do with waterboarding, though even that terrifying prospect didn’t stop me going in for some Red Stripe, to be fair.
The Secret Ferry at Rotherhithe
Yes, there’s a flippin’ ferry at Rotherhithe! Who knew? Well, people staying at the catchily-named Hilton London Docklands Riverside do, because you have to go through the Hilton to get on it. And people who work at Canary Wharf do, because that’s where it goes. Fortunately I know no one from those two constituencies, so it was a shock to find this secret crossing. Hilton residents ride for free, so it’s good to have an imaginary room number in mind when you board, but Canary Wharf is so inhumanly charmless I would have happily swum back. I could have believed I was anywhere in Europe. Anywhere except London.
The thing I love about Blackfriars Bridge is that there are alcoves designed for you to sit in, admire the view and enjoy some economy super-strength cider. Blackfriars is the only road bridge in London that invites you to pause. And life without pauses is go, go, go, until you’re gone.
We’d have to go back to the early 19th century to find a Thames frozen enough to have a fair on, but it is evidence of what an incredible city London has always been. As soon as the river froze, people were looking to see what fun they could have on it. In the last frost fair in 1814 an elephant was led across at Blackfrairs, daring the ice to break. Never mind £7bn on crossings, let’s sort out a freeze-ray gun.
Alright, the Golden Jubilee bridges, if you must. Lovely views on either side save the otherwise fussy design. It’s better being on it than looking at it and is a vast improvement on the shabby Hungerford Bridge, which, of course, I loved. At least until someone was thrown off it by herberts.
The Wobbly Bridge
When it was still wobbly, the Millennium Bridge provided the most exciting wobbly vibration experience over a body of water in the hemisphere. That was back in the day when synchronous lateral excitation on a bridge was still legal, along with magic mushrooms, though sadly they were rarely combined. Even now it’s sturdy, it’s a joy, linking architectural icons, the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s, both now temples to imagination.
But the prince of all crossing must be the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe. Built by Brunel and his father, also Brunel, it was ‘the most successful visitor attraction in the world’ at the time. People came from all over the globe, just to gawp at a tunnel, which is another reason to distrust anyone who claims the good old days were somehow better.
The tunnel had shops, a fairground, a theatre and, I’d like to think, pubs for Victorian ravers, making it all worthwhile. Now it’s part of London Overground’s Ginger Line taking beards from Hoxton to Peckham and, thankfully, back again.
The Thames Tunnel is often confused, by people like me, with the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which failed to make the Top Ten even though it is the perfect pedestrian river crossing for lovers of car fumes. Only about 20 people manage the walk daily, a figure that, let’s face it, is only likely to decline given the absolute state of the air in there.
Update: Oct 2018
Hats off to Greenwich Council who have decided to replace the Woolwich Ferry boats with whizzy new ones. The Ferry is closed right now while work is done to the piers, but will reopen in December with the brand new vessels, which we hope will be equipped with three bars, a casino and crazy golf course.