“The history of the city is permanently linked to the river,” our guide Emily explained. And while that’s true of most riverside cities in the world, we never really understood the relationship until our London walking tour of the South Bank of the Thames River. Along the way, we realized that the best way to enjoy and appreciate this city is from the banks of the Thames.
Any good story starts at the beginning, and the roots of this modern city began at the Tower of London, one of the most important London castles. This fortress and royal palace is situated at one of the narrowest points on the Thames River. Since it is England’s longest river, this was a critical trade route. Having a strategic fortress to guard the river (which is actually a tidal estuary at this point) was very important to the Crown.
Before our Thames walk, we stopped to see Pudding Lane and Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London. The fire, which started on September 2, 1666 in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, ultimately spread to engulf most of the city of London. By the end of the fire three days later, over 85% of inhabitants had lost their homes and the city was decimated. London hasn’t had an easy time of it.
The tides of time have changed the city’s fortunes for the better. These days, the North Bank area around the Tower, Pudding Lane and London Bridge are filled with fashionable offices. However, around little corners, you can still find a relic of London’s storied past.
Around one corner, we came on the ruins of St. Dunstan in the East. This church was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II and ultimately not rebuilt, instead being turned into a church garden. During our weekend visit, a fashion model was having a photo shoot in the garden, but during the week, it’s a popular lunch spot with local office workers.
After crossing London Bridge over the Thames, we encountered the South Bank, which has a much different vibe than the other side of the river. All of the best walks along the Thames in London will incorporate some aspect of the South Bank.
This area has experienced massive revitalization in recent years. Once industrial, this area has trendy restaurants and a beautifully designed promenade to walk along the Thames. Many of England’s great cultural institutions are now located on the South Bank.
In 1997, The Globe Theatre of William Shakespeare’s fame re-opened after a 384 year hiatus. This theater-in-the-round features performances of Shakespeare’s plays for standing patrons. While visiting England in 1998, Laura was lucky to have attended a performance here.
Not far up river, the Bankside Power Station houses the Tate Modern museum and just beyond it is the National Theater (complete with the popular, but completely out of place skateboard park).
As our unscripted London walking tour came to a close at the London Eye ferris wheel, we realized we’d just blazed through nearly three hours on our Thames River walk and covered hundreds of years of the city’s history. This was my first real trip to London, and our guide Emily did a wonderful job orienting us to this city…and its important river.
A London Walking Tour of the South Bank of the Thames
This London walking tour runs on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10:00am and last around 2 ½ hours. Please consult the website for exact dates.
£80 per person for a small group (which is never more than six people); £360 for a fully private tour.
The meeting point for the tour is near the Tower of London. The nearest underground stop is Tower Hill (on the Circle and District Lines) or Tower Gateway DLR station. The tour will end near the London Eye, which is close to the Waterloo underground (on the Bakerloo, Jubilee, Northern and Waterloo & City lines).
What to Bring
While the walk is not strenuous, comfortable shoes can be very helpful. The tour runs rain or shine, so if rain is expected, be sure to bring a jacket. Context Travel requests no umbrellas.
About Context Travel
The company focuses on very small group tours that are led by Masters and Ph.D. credentialed docents, providing both overview tours as well as intense topical immersion.
London Walking Tour Tip
After the tour, walk across the Golden Jubilee Bridge, which offers great views of the city. Once on the north bank, hang a right onto Embankment Place and follow it around the curve to the left, which is Villiers Street. At the first alley on the right, go down the steps into Gordon’s Wine Bar.
Gordon’s serves wines by the glass and bottle, along with cheeses and other edible delights in a candle-lit, cave-like space. It can be mobbed with people, but is well worth it! The city won’t allow standing in the bar, so you may need to wait for a spot to free up.
Where to Stay
London has a ton of hotels, although the city is known for being very pricey. We’ve found some sites that you may want to check out that offer good London hotel deals.
We were the guests of Context Travel’s London walking tours. As always, all opinions of the inspiring and impressive are our own.