Travel Story Escape London's hustle and bustle in historic Greenwich

Photo of Steve McKenna

Using the south-eastern borough of Greenwich as a base allows you to embrace London’s epic riverside setting. 

As far as hotels go, the InterContinental London The O2 is a good ’un. Granted, it lacks a cool, catchy name like some of the city’s other new high-end affairs (the Ned, anyone?) but it ranks among the best to open in the Big Smoke in the past year or so. 

Overlooking the Thames by the northern tip of the Greenwich peninsula, it faces the financial hub of Canary Wharf over the water and shoulders the O2 Arena. A portal links the hotel’s marble-floored lobby with the latter’s huge tented dome, which pulls in crowds for its big-ticket concerts, exhibitions and its Up at the O2 attraction, an “urban mountaineering” experience to the building’s summit. 

But even if you’re not in town for business or entertainment, the InterContinental is a great option for a London stay; the 453 rooms are pleasingly spacious and from the higher levels (there are 18 storeys), stirring Thames vistas await. There’s a distinct “local” feel to this chain hotel, too, with antique seafaring maps, models of tall-masted ships, vintage clocks and brass tilted globes paying tribute to Greenwich’s maritime heritage and position on the Prime Meridian line. 

You may feel cut-off — or cocooned — from London’s hustle and bustle here but Jubilee-line trains from North Greenwich Tube station will spirit you to London Bridge in eight minutes. Most interesting to me is a pier serviced by the MBNA Thames Clippers, the public river boats that connect east and west London, docking at various points in between, including the London Eye and Embankment. In fine weather, the Clipper really is the way to travel. 

After feasting on the most delicious breakfast buffet I’ve had at any London hotel — give yourself at least an hour to savour the InterContinental’s super-sized croissants, dairy products, juicy bacon, sausages, smoked salmon, charcuterie, fresh fruit etc — I board Moon Clipper. Launched in 2001, it’s one of the oldest members of a fleet that also comprises the Galaxy and Neptune, which were built in Hobart in 2015. 

The Moon’s capacity is 138, with most of the seats inside, but I linger in the small covered open-air section as the captain negotiates a vivid horseshoe bend of the Thames, a river the ancient Romans navigated to establish Londinium in AD43. About 10 minutes later, we pull in at Greenwich, the quaint, villagey part of this royal borough where Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born. 

Capitalising on the Clippers’ hop-on, hop-off potential, I get off and amble through the Old Royal Naval College, the picturesque centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich — a UNESCO World Heritage site. Passing the college’s palatial twin-domed Baroque buildings — designed by Sir Christopher Wren — I enter the awe-inspiring Painted Hall, which has been called Britain’s Sistine Chapel for its elaborate naval-themed ceiling murals. 

Admiral Lord Nelson's body was laid in state here after his death in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, while his bullet-torn jacket is among the exhibits at the National Maritime Museum beside nearby Greenwich Park. Ideal for scenic strolls, this lovely, leafy, hilly park is home to the Greenwich Observatory, where the designation Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT, began (you can stick one foot each in the eastern and western hemispheres here). 

Another esteemed Greenwich sight is the Cutty Sark. Used for exporting tea from China and wool from Australia, this mid-19th-century sailing clipper was badly damaged by fire in 2008 but looks fabulous after a £50 million ($86 million) refurbishment. You can roam the vessel, discover what life was like on board and touch its copper hull. Cutty Sark is also the name of one of Greenwich’s numerous maritime-themed pubs, beside the Thames, east of the Old Royal Naval College. 

After trawling through Greenwich Market, charmingly restored and brimming with arts, crafts and street food, I hop back on the Clipper (the Moon again) with about 60 other tourists and, judging by the accents, a couple of Londoners as well. 

We’re not the only ones on the water as we buzz towards central London. We cross paths with half a dozen canoists, a sightseeing vessel and a RIB (rigid inflatable boat), which is ferrying its passengers about at a blurring rate of knots. We pass industrial barges colonised by rowdy seagulls and glimpse people moseying on the balconies of the apartments lining both banks of the river. 

Most of these new flats are unremarkable looking but some occupy the Victorian warehouses that used to house goods shipped from across the British Empire. 

The iconic London sights come into view thick and fast. On our right, is the Tower of London, built by William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion of AD1066 (it hides the Crown Jewels). Ahead is the neo-Gothic Tower Bridge, the most photogenic of all the bridges that span the Thames, and, on our left, HMS Belfast, a World War II battleship permanently anchored here. 

The Tate Modern, set in a former power station, and the almighty dome of St Paul’s Cathedral also grab the attention. 

After rounding another bend in the river, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament loom ahead, beneath a radiant blue sky. 

Alighting at Westminster pier, all set for an afternoon of sightseeing, I ponder something: Clipper fares are about twice as expensive as the Tube, but, my, it’s worth the extra — especially on a gorgeous day like today. 

Picture at top: A Thames Clipper by Greenwich Old Royal Naval College. Picture by Visit Greenwich

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Disclaimer

Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Greenwich and Visit Britain.

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