London from the River Thames — Photo courtesy of DocklandsboyIn the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, the footballer David Beckham was seen zooming up the River Thames carrying the Olympic torch aboard a speedboat. At the very start of Danny Boyle's creation, an animated dragonfly buzzed around the source of the river Thames at Thames Head in Gloucestershire before flying towards London along green and pleasant lands of fields, hedgerows and trees, gradually becoming more urban as it arrived in London.
The River Thames is the longest river in England and its most famous as it cuts straight through the heart of London. The river has always been the city's lifeblood and has given the place a global heart long before we'd ever heard of multicultural societies or immigration. The London docks and the river used to bring all sorts of exotic riches into the UK through its vast trading empire, and even now that the docks have been made into luxury apartments and banks, the river still provides a siren call to diversity.
Even before the empire, water provided a source of exploration for Londoners and incomers from the Saxons to the Vikings to the Romans. Trade happened alongside and on the water, and until after the war, London's river was busy with tugs, trading boats and transport. Canals, like the Regent's Canal which meanders through Hackney, Islington and Camden, and the River Lea which flows into the Thames at Limehouse Cut and Bow were also great trade routes, taking London to the world, and bringing the world to London.
London's Docklands — Photo courtesy of yoshimai
Today, the River Thames and Docklands have been revamped. There's an airport, city airport, and now a high wire transport facility famously used during the London Olympics by the city's mayor, Boris Johnson. Along London's South bank between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge, you can wander on the South Side, enjoying the sites, trying out the London Eye, popping into a cafe, pub or restaurant or two. You can stop off at the BFI's new mediatheque, you can catch an exhibition at the Tate Modern or the Hayward Gallery, or a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Watch a film or enjoy a play at the National Theatre and Film theatres; there's even an IMAX 3D cinema at Waterloo Bridge, or learn about design at the Design Museum near Tower Bridge. When you've done with that, just across Tower Bridge, you'll find the Tower of London, or across the 'Millennium Bridge' or bridge of light, you can visit St Paul's Cathedral and learn about Sir Christopher Wren and how the church stood firm through the burning fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz during the second World War.
A great day out is to head to Greenwich, alongside the river in Southeast London on the DLR or Jubilee line, climb the hill and look at the Meridian line and the Observatory. Then catch a catamaran boat back up the river to Tower Bridge or London Bridge as the sun sets and you'll see the city twinkle as you plan where to go for dinner.
The Regent's Canal — Photo courtesy of Maik KschischoIf you're feeling more active, you can hire a Boris Bike and cycle along the South of the River from Tower Bridge to Richmond, with a few minor detours on various cycle paths and routes on roads. Or, from the Tower of London you can cycle on the CS3 off-road cycle track all the way to Docklands and beyond. Coming off at Limehouse, you can then take the river back up towards Victoria Park, Hackney and the River Lea and if you're feeling really fit, carry on up to Waltham Abbey and the outskirts of London past some of London's water reservoirs in Tottenham.
Lea River leading to Limehouse — Photo courtesy of Maik Kschischo
This might seem a bit off the beaten track, but it combines two of the best things about London: rich and poor living side by side, the waterways that made London the diverse city that it is, and the potential to have fun and get fit whilst learning about a city with one of the richest histories in the world.