There’s more to the Thames than London – though it’s a great place to start discovering this great river.
The south bank of the Thames is home to historic landmarks, diverse residential communities and upmarket shopping and dining. Often seen as less glamorous than its northern counterparts, it’s the place to go if you want to discover authentic neighbourhoods (though there are some touristy areas too).
The Thames is the longest river in England. It flows through 9 counties including London. For this post, I’m going to focus on London and Surrey, the two I’m most familiar with and have lived in. We’ll be passing through 3 of the 7 Royal Boroughs in England – starting with Greenwich.
What to see: National Maritime Museum, the O2, Greenwich Meridian, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Market, the Cutty Sark, cable car across to Royal Docks.
When your bus drives along the Greenwich High Road, you’ll probably wonder what all the fuss is about. This looks like any other busy unremarkable London suburb. Don’t be fooled – the peninsula offers so many amazing experiences and things to see that I could fill a whole blog post with them. For a start, it’s the site of a Tudor palace and the birthplace of both King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Most people know Greenwich for its naval history and timekeeping associations. The massive National Maritime Museum and the old Royal Naval College – with its stunning classical buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren – are well worth making time to visit.
A stroll through Greenwich Park to the Royal Observatory will give you the chance to take the obligatory photo with one foot in each hemisphere, astride the Greenwich Meridian.
I love shopping at Greenwich Market. Its undercover stalls have a great selection of unusual crafts and handmade items which make superb gifts. There’s also a food court offering different varieties of street food – Asian, Brazilian barbecue, pizza to name but three. You’ll smell the gorgeous aromas drifting around the market as soon as you step inside!
The best way to reach Greenwich, in my opinion, is by riverboat. Thames Clippers runs a regular ferry service from various piers in the London area. Other options are train, bus and DLR (the Docklands Light Railway). You can take London’s only cable car across to the Royal Docks and enjoy great views of London sights such as St Paul’s Cathedral.
2. London Bridge
What to see: The Shard, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, The Clink, Borough Market, Hay’s Galleria shopping mall – and of course London Bridge!
Southwark is one of my favourite London boroughs. It’s not the most beautiful, but it’s a fascinating mix of old and new, wealthy and less wealthy, all of which seems to blend together really well. It’s definitely a place for commerce and merchandising. You’ll see buildings associated with the old fashioned trades and exchanges, side-by-side with the tall towers of modern service industries.
London Bridge is one historical and very atmospheric corner of the borough that has a lot to offer the visitor. Its busy station is fiendishly easy to get lost in, however – beware! Readers may have seen it featured in a popular ‘fly on the wall’ ITV documentary series a few years ago.
When you emerge from the station you can’t miss The Shard towering above you. Designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, it’s the tallest building in the UK. You can buy a ticket for the viewing platform, or you can zoom up to a high floor for free if you plan to visit one of the restaurants and bars. It’s well worth doing one or the other to enjoy the fantastic views of London from the upper floors. See more in my blog post about city towers.
Foodies will love the amazing Borough Market with its wide range of foods and restaurants representing just about every kind of cuisine you can imagine. From Arbroath Smokies to Tyrolean fine cheeses, you can find it all here. It’s open every day except Sunday.
If torment, torture and the dark side of life are more your thing, you can visit The Clink, one of the UK’s oldest and more notorious former prisons. Dating back to the 12th century, the prison housed numerous petty criminals, ‘drunks and harlots’ during its time. Needless to say, if you do visit the museum, you’ll be entertained with many colourful stories of former inhabitants and their scandalous crimes.
Fascinatingly, 2 inmates included John Greenwood and Henry Barrowe, who founded the Independent Church (also known as the Puritan Church) after they were released in 1592. Sadly their freedom didn’t last long as they were imprisoned in the Clink again the following year. Between 1629 and 1640, many of the remaining members of the Puritan congregation left for America. On arrival in New England they helped establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony, living in a town they called Boston.
I love to stroll around Hay’s Galleria down by the riverside. Even if you don’t patronise the specialist shops and cafes inside its magnificent vaulted hall, you can admire the architecture and artworks.
3. Gabriel’s Wharf
What to see: eclectic riverside shops and restaurants, OXO Tower, art galleries
If you walk along the south bank of the Thames between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges you’ll pass by Gabriel’s Wharf. It’s an eclectic and vaguely shabby collection of individual, unique shops and restaurants set around a bandstand.
I used to work nearby and would bring my lunch to sit and soak up the atmosphere of this riverside life. Despite the nearby offices and tower blocks, it felt like a time warp. It’s a great place to take visiting family or friends, as it’s so different from the more touristy areas of London. The pizzeria is really good too. If you want to catch an evening show, the South Bank theatreland is 10 minutes’ walk away.
Next to Gabriel’s Wharf is the attractive Bernie Spain landscaped gardens, which is another great place to take your packed lunch. Beyond that is the Oxo Tower, another collection of shops – these ones rather more upmarket and expensive. There’s also a restaurant and an art gallery.
What to see: riverside pubs, West Putney rowing clubs, The University Boat Race (April)
We’re now heading out of central London towards the west. Putney can be reached by train from Waterloo or Underground (District Line westbound – Wimbledon branch) from Embankment or Westminster, both of which are an easy walk from the South Bank area. East Putney is the best tube stop to alight from.
The most scenic way to get there is to take a Thames Clipper (see Greenwich section above).
Putney is a well-heeled suburb on the south bank of the Thames opposite Fulham. It’s probably best known for being the starting point of the annual University boat race when the Oxford and Cambridge crews battle it out over the 4.2 miles to Mortlake.
Putney’s traffic-clogged high street has little to write home about. But the riverside is lovely. To the east of Putney Bridge is a modern riverside shopping, dining and residential area which is good for leisurely Sunday afternoon drinks or lunch.
To the west of the bridge is an attractive riverside walk along the embankment, past the rowing clubs belonging to schools and universities like Westminster School, Dulwich College, King’s College and Imperial College. You can often see the young rowers out practising at weekends.
This is the best place to watch the boat race, unless you’re lucky enough to get an invitation to a private club like the 17th-century Winchester House, as we did. There are some other decent hostelries in the area, along with some rather elegant private houses.
The further west along the south bank of the Thames you go, the less evident it becomes that you’re still in London. Except for the many jets overhead which follow the river along towards Heathrow.
What to see: riverside walks, pubs and restaurants; mini cruises
Putney and Richmond are both blessed with beautiful and well-known parks and heaths, but as they are not by the river, we’ll leave those for another day.
Although Richmond is a London Borough, it doesn’t have a London postcode as it’s regarded as being in the county of Surrey. This apparent split personality can be confusing at times. However it’s also a good thing, because it means that Richmond gets the best of both worlds – a countrified environment with great transport links, including its own branch of the District Line.
Richmond has a decent shopping centre, but what I most love is its riverside life. The Thames is narrower at this point than in central London, so you can drink and dine in one of the delightful riverside pubs while enjoying the view across to the parks and gardens of Twickenham.
Heading west along the riverside path, you can walk by the lovely Terrace Gardens that stretch all the way up to the top of Richmond Hill. Eventually the path takes you slightly away from the river as you enter the village of Petersham.
What to see: riverside walks, countryside, Petersham Nurseries
By the time you reach this village, you’ll feel like you’re in the English countryside and the Thames looks like a rather different river. I’ve included Petersham in this list of South Thames gems for one main reason – Petersham Nurseries. Even if you don’t love plants and gardening, I think you’ll enjoy your visit to this wonderful emporium.
It all began in the late 1990s when Italian-born Francesco Boglione and his Australian wife Gael decided to move their family from central London to Petersham House, a rather grand 17th century Queen Anne style home on the site. The couple were close friends of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, who lived nearby.
When a rather dilapidated nursery came up for sale on land next to his, Francesco decided to buy it, to be sure that nobody would build an ugly development on the site. Unsure what to do with it at first, he and Gael decided to restore it and open it as a business, which they achieved in 2004. Since then, the family’s love of nature, food, antiques and travel have influenced the ongoing development of the greenhouses, cafes and shop.
The cafe in particular has gained a strong reputation for exceptional cuisine, and has been awarded a green Michelin star. I’ve been there for lunch and can confirm that the award is well deserved. One of the Boglione sons, Harry, runs his own farm in Devon and supplies organic produce to the cafe.
There’s also a Tea House where, at weekends, you can take a traditional English afternoon tea – with a twist. An example of a Petersham innovation is the orange, polenta and olive oil cake with mascarpone and lemon thyme. Or how about pea, broad bean and garden mint tartlets – yum. Don’t worry, the scones, jam and cream are still included!
On weekdays, the Tea House serves cafe food for those who don’t want a full service lunch. It’s a great stop in between strolling around the greenhouses and visiting the shop to look at the antiques, gifts and furniture.
If anyone reading this can’t find the time to head this far out of London, don’t worry – you can enjoy a taste of Petersham at their Covent Garden outpost. And if you can’t get to either site, there’s a book coming out! (May 2021).
What to see: riverside pubs and dining, pretty shopping centre (with great shopping)
Like Richmond, Kingston is a London borough (a Royal one too) but it has a Surrey postcode.
During my years of living in south west London, Kingston was regarded as THE best place, other than the West End, to go shopping. Whether I needed Christmas gifts or new clothes, Kingston was my first choice as it was an easy hop on the bus or train and offered a great variety of high street and independent shops. There are modern malls and a main street that is typical of many London suburban centres and small towns in the area. But there’s also the more historic central market place.
The market place is cobbled and has attractive buildings and narrow streets leading to it. Markets have been held here since the early 1200s, and still take place daily with 28 permanent stallholders selling mostly food, fresh produce and flowers.
Away from the shopping area, there’s a lively riverside dining and drinking scene where you can watch the many pleasure craft and narrow boats passing by.
What to see: lovely riverside, attractive town centre, pubs and cafes, Windsor Castle, Eton
By the time we’ve travelled this far west along the south bank of the Thames, we’ve left London behind and entered the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, in the pretty county of Berkshire. The easiest way to reach Windsor is by train. It takes about 30 minutes to reach Windsor and Eton Riverside station from Waterloo.
The magnificent Norman castle is the best known attraction in Windsor. There’s a popular story told by local tourist guides, about the foreign visitors who ask why HM The Queen had her castle built in the Heathrow flight path. Whether you believe the story or not, you can’t fail to notice the number of low-flying jets that pass by every 30 seconds or so, and wonder how the Queen puts up with it! Unless, like me, she’s a plane spotter.
The castle was built in the late 11th century by William the Conqueror, some 900 years before Heathrow opened its gates. It’s well worth a visit to admire the beautiful state rooms and the chapel, which was spectacularly renovated following a fire in 1992. After walking through centuries of fascinating royal history you can have tea and cake in the Undercroft Cafe and bag yourself a Royal Collection souvenir from the shop.
Aside from the castle, there’s lots to see and do in Windsor. The town itself is charming and has some really good traditional pubs, tea houses, shops and restaurants. I’m particularly fond of the Windsor Royal Shopping centre, which is located opposite the castle in the old Central Station building.
Cruising along the Thames is a very pleasant way to enjoy the sights of Windsor and there are various local companies offering tours. One is the Windsor Duck Tour which takes place on an amphibious craft, so that you get to see the locality from both river and road.
The riverside is also lovely to walk along – and you can cross the old town bridge to Eton, home of the famous public school which many royal children have attended. A lovely place to dine in Eton is at the Côte Brasserie, which is on the riverside. You can look back across the river towards Windsor and the castle.
If watery tours are your thing, you might enjoy my post on Narrowboating in Wales.
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