Touring London without the Tube

“Mind the Gap” is perhaps one of the more iconic phrases in the history of mass transit. Say that line and many folks’ thoughts will immediately jump to the London Underground, as well they should. And yet, this week, it was nearly 36 hours from when we arrived in London to when we first set foot in an Underground station, and then only to make our way back out to Heathrow for our departure.

No, we didn’t take taxis all over town. Nor did we stay in one place. We actually saw a number of things during our visit. We reverted to the original mass transit means in town: the River Thames.

Sure, a day pass on the river boats was a bit more expensive (£12 for an adult) than a day pass on the Underground, but it was also a lot more fun. Rather than being confined to hot, crowded rail cars we were on boats with climate control and outdoor space. And, for us, the boats were also much more convenient to get where we wanted to go. From out hotel in the Southwark/Blackfriars area we rode up the river to the Tate Britain gallery for a bit of culture. After a quick breakfast at a nearby cafe we were back on the water headed east, to Greenwich.

There are two museums in Greenwich, the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum. Both are worth a visit.

First stop for us was the Royal Observatory, also known as the place where the Prime Meridian passes through. There is a line marked in the courtyard and a sundial statue where folks were all taking photos (self included). There was also quite a collection of much less clichéd exhibits on the importance of the Royal Observatory and its history.

As the importance of shipping grew in England and the rest of the world, the ability to navigate effectively became paramount. It turns out that the best way to do that is with a really good clock, among other tools. So in addition to mapping the position of stars in the sky the Royal Observatory was involved in facilitating the development of clocks that would be highly precise and reliable, even after a long journey at sea. Developing such a clock was harder than it sounds and a £20,000 prize in the 1700s – roughly a £1,000,000 prize today – had many folks try at solutions but it still took nearly 50 years for a solution refined enough to win the award to be developed. The museum has a wide collection of clocks and other time-pieces representing several hundred years of sea-going history. The collection also includes a number of more modern pieces, including quartz and laser-ion based clocks, to demonstrate recent developments in the field.

There were also a number of telescopes and other astronomical devices on display which were neat, but not as cool as the clock stuff, at least to me.

The highlight of the National Maritime Museum was an exhibit about Admiral Horatio Nelson, including the uniform he was wearing when he was shot and killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. There were a few other exhibits as well and it was OK overall as a place to visit but without the Royal Observatory I’d likely have been disappointed in making the trek out there from downtown.

After the museums and some lunch in Greenwich town it was back onto the water for the quick ride back to Blackfriars and then time for dinner. A full day of touristing in London and not once did we set foot on a train.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.