Here at Thames Leisure we have decided to write you a definitive guide to London’s piers. Plenty of boat operators have pier maps, there is Wikipedia and the odd tourist flyer but we wanted to create something different: a series of blogs on the major piers on the river Thames, their surroundings and their history. Seeing London by the river is a very beautiful, liberating and rejuvenating experience but it can be easy to forget the history of the river. The Thames is one of the world’s most famous waterways and a fantastic way to explore and travel around London. Travelling by river is a relaxing and fast way to get about. Stretching from Woolwich in the east to Twickenham in the west the Thames provides an easy, traffic-free-water-highway to a great number of central London destinations. The city was built up along the river and although it has vastly expanded over the centuries the Thames is still at the heart of the Capital.
Whether looking to explore an area before a cruise or looking to the river for transport, our definitive guide to London piers should give you the tools to understand London how we see it: from a river perspective. It really is a great way to experience the Capital as a tourist, visitor or resident looking for something new. Without further ado…
Part One: Tower Millennium Pier
We start with our home pier at the Tower where we operate the majority of our cruises from our moorings at the Old Billingsgate Fish Market. It is one of the busiest piers on the river and after receiving a recent extension it now has four boarding points for large vessels as well as work boats and the exciting Thames Rib Experience that operate from the inside of the pier. This makes Tower Pier (we often leave off the ‘Millennium’, I’ll be honest, it’s a mouthful!) a real river hub and transport interchange on Thames. It also acts as the main terminal for Cruise ships visiting London and staying on the birth by HMS Belfast.
History of Tower Millennium Pier
The Millennium Commission sought to invest in river infrastructure over the turn of the century and so the Tower Millennium Pier was opened by Ken Livingstone as part of the Thames 2000 project that was responsible for another five new piers built at the same time. Tower Pier is operated by London River Services and was opened by Ken Livingstone for the Millennium.
The Upper Pool
Tower Pier is located in front of the Tower Of London by ‘Traitors Gate’ and a stone’s throw away from Tower Bridge and right at the heart of the Upper Pool of London. The exact size of the Pool of London is often debated but essentially it is the area of wharves on the river that extend down river from Old Billingsgate and London Bridge. Historically it was here that cargoes first arrived and were unloaded in London to be assessed and processed by customs, it was quite a sight and was first mentioned as early as the 7th Century. As trade grew over the centuries, so did the ‘Pool’. By the 18th Century it came to represent the stretched quays and wharves all the way from London Bridge to Limehouse. It was said that the Pool became so congested that you could walk from one side of the Thames to the other simply by stepping from boat to boat! It was an essential part of the city, providing trade, supplies, employment and growing wealth to Londoners.
Maritime trade grew to such an extent that the West India Dock was built in 1799. These off-river docks allowed greater security and space and so began a boom in London’s great series of locked docks that led to the Port of London becoming the largest port in the world. Although the ‘heyday’ of the Pool had come to an end, it did remain busy with trade until the 1950s when the ‘containerisation’ of cargo and shipping led London’s docklands to collapse almost overnight. Deepwater ports were needed for the large container ships and cheap lorry haulage changed maritime trade forever. The Port of London had been undercut in price and efficiency and what followed was a series of urban renewal projects and tremendous social upheaval with a painful economic reorientation. Only remnants of the Pool can be seen now on painted wharf signs and wooden piles that are now eclipsed by the shiny glass skyscrapers of financial services along the river banks.
The Upper Pool for this guide will serve as the area of river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. As you might have guessed from the above, there are some historical gems as well as some new, contemporary reasons to visit the area!
Built in the late 19th Century, Tower Bridge isn’t even that old compared with some of the surrounding area; however, it has become one of the most recognisable landmarks in the Capital. Its striking Victorian Gothic style and garish colouring has an almost ‘Disney-Land-esque’ quality. Its design is in fact so popular that many tourists simply assume incorrectly that it is London Bridge (London Bridge has had many incarnations, the latest of which is very plain architecturally for such a famous name). Indeed, our very own Tower Pier (named after the Tower of London, as the Bridge was) is often incorrectly called Tower Bridge Pier showing how important the landmark has become to tourists and visitors alike.
Due to the ‘Pool of London’, the area of river up to London Bridge had to remain free from crossings that would block river traffic. After the 1850s, new development in the area meant a new crossing had to be built and a competition was launched to find a solution. Among the entries were a subway under the river and a great suspension bridge that would rise above the shipping! The winning design by Sir Horace Jones and his engineer, Sir John Wolfe Barry, has the now familiar style of two towers with rising bascules. River traffic could pass and pedestrians could use the higher walkways when the bridge was in use. Finished in 1894, it proved very popular due to the fact there was no tolls although, due to the stairs, the pedestrian walkways were seldom used and closed to the public in 1910.
In 1982, the Tower Bridge Exhibition opened. It used the old Victorian Engine Rooms and the pedestrian walkways to show off the inner workings of this mighty bridge. It has proved very popular and, with the introduction of ‘glass walkways’ up on high in the floor of the pedestrian walkways, the exhibition is more popular than ever.
Here at Thames Leisure, we are very friendly with Tower Bridge. Our very own Sailing Barge Will, with her high mast, requires Tower Bridge to open in order for her to pass through into the Upper Pool and collect guests. The historic grey barge opening Tower Bridge is quite a familiar sight in the area. Traffic is stopped, pedestrians on the Bridge wave and cheer as the Barge sails through the open bascules. To be able to open Tower Bridge is a very special thing and our guests are thrilled at the once in a life time opportunity. For us as crew, we get to open the Bridge fairly frequently but it never ceases to amaze as the great steel clad bascules rise. It is really quite spectacular.
Recently, we have been combining a cruise opening the Bridge with a tour of the exhibition. While looking down from the glass walkways we organise an exclusive bridge lift to witness from up on high! The Tower Bridge Tour and Cruise is a great way to fully experience the Bridge from all angles.
The Tower Of London
There is a frightening amount of history on Tower Hill. The Tower of London was first built in 1066 during the Norman invasion. Built on a hill on the north bank of the Thames it served as a royal residence, castle and prison. It has fought off invasions, been resident to a Polar Bear, was once the location of the Royal Mint and currently houses the Crown Jewels. The White Tower was built in 1078 and additions have been made ever since. The result is a beautiful mismatch of styles, repair work and eras from Victorian to Medieval. As a World Heritage site it is definitely worth visiting (although try and come off peak…) and exploring the hidden dungeons, towers and history of this Royal Palace is essential to anyone visiting the area (tickets are £1 for Tower Hamlets residents!).
All Hallows by the Tower
Just to the north west of the Tower of London is the beautiful old church ‘All Hallows by the Tower’ – the oldest church in the City of London. It was founded in AD675, 300 years before the Tower of London! It has a crypt beneath that is on an old Roman Pavement showing signs of human habitation for two thousand years.
Although bombed during the Second World War, it was rebuilt in 1957 and survives to this day. Due to its location it became a popular mariner’s church and memorials and prayers for those heading to sea can be found throughout the church.
Other nearby Landmarks
Tower Pier (or Tower Bridge Pier!) is located in the City of London, the borough that forms the oldest part of the London and was once a walled Roman City. The old London Wall can be seen on the public foot path on the north side of the Tower of London, excavated for all to see! Following the wall from here, all the delights of the City of London from the Lord Mayors Show to Museum of London to fantastic old pubs are accessible!
Exploring the area by foot will reveal a great many more landmarks in the area and some fantastic architecture. Along the river to the west you can view the Old Customs House, Old Billingsgate Fish Markets and ascend the steps of the Monument to the Great Fire of London for a scarily high view of of the river! Or, head east towards St Katherine Docks for a bite to eat and a look at the old moored Barges. On the opposite side of the River, outside the Mayor’s Office, City Hall, there is the performance space ‘Scoop’ and if you are feeling very adventurous why not board HMS Belfast, a World War Two light cruiser (now a museum ship run by the Imperial War Museum).
Tower Pier is only a short walk from Tower Hill Station that serves the District and Circle Lines and Tower Gateway that serves the DLR. There are also National Rail trains from nearby Fenchurch Street and it is only 15 minute walk from the Northern Line at Bank or the Jubilee Line and National Rail services from London Bridge. That is not to mention the many buses that stop outside the Tower of London – it really is very accessible!
Why not join us in this part of the Thames for Christmas this year? Explore the area and take a wonderful festive Christmas Cruise from Tower Millennium Pier to explore Tower Bridge and the Upper Pool from the river? Call us on 020 7623 1805 now or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.