Monday, 8 October 2012

Fly the Thames

I get mountains, I really do. There is nothing quite like standing on the top of an Alp on a cold, bright, crystal clear day, where you can see further than the average city dweller can even imagine. Of course, it helps if there is a discreet little cafe up there with you, where you can sip a hot chocolate, perhaps dosed with a hefty slug of the local hooch, and accompany that with a decent sized slab of tooth rotting, waist spreading, sachertorte.

What I don't get is mountain climbing. Why would anyone subject themselves to the pain and misery of clinging to a sheer rock face, not to mention the exhaustion and the ever present danger of plunging hundreds of feet to your death or ending up dangling on a rope with several other climbers like party bunting in a Tim Burton film.

 Fortunately, human ingenuity has come to the rescue, and we are able to ascend in various degrees of comfort thanks to cog railways, ski lifts and cable cars. Even more fortunately, we can descend without ropes and snow axes, or the need to slide down uncontrollably on planks of wood or sleighs the size of tea trays. I don't know why every mountain worth visiting isn't so equipped!

We're a bit short of Alps in London (except in Beckton, of course!) but we do have a cable car. Considered by many to have been another of the Mayor's vanity projects, it apparently would have the massive advantage of its proposed £25 million being entirely financed by private enterprise. In an alternative universe that may have happened. However, back in the real world, the budget kept climbing and in the end has cost the taxpayer in excess of £24 million. The rest has been coughed up by Emirates Airline who, in exchange, get a heavily branded, high visibility, animated advert and a plug on the tube map.

Anyway, whatever your feelings on the whole project, it is there and it is running, so we may as well use it. So a few weeks ago I did.

The northern terminal is just a short walk from Royal Victoria station on the DLR and is located alongside the Crystal, which is the extraordinary Siemens sustainability centre. It was quite busy on the day I was there and, unless you had an Oyster Card, there were two queues to negotiate before you were able  to climb aboard. The first was to buy your "boarding card" and the second to get into the terminal itself. Using your Oyster Card allows you to enter the terminal in the same way as you'd enter a tube station and has the added advantage of saving you £1.10 on the cost of a single fare. Sadly, Freedom Pass holders will have to buy a boarding card but they do get it at the reduced rate.

Although the queue was quite long, it moved quickly. The loading and unloading of the pods was efficiently handled by the team on the platform and you are very soon on your way. As you gain altitude you get a good view of the Crystal and over the sanitised remains of the docks on which, during my trip, there were a couple of guys water skiing using an overhead drag line rather than a powerboat. They were pretty good on the flat but useless over the jump. I say that as someone who has never tried his hand at this particular activity, but you don't need to be an expert to know that when you hit the ramp you are supposed to stay upright and not end up with your head under the water!

I recommend that as you approach the river it's best not to look down, this isn't because it's likely to trigger a bout of acrophobia (if that is likely to be a problem, then what the hell are you doing up there anyway?) but because it is just plain ugly down there. With all sorts of industrial stuff and piles of scrap, it can hardly be described as scenic! Anyway, there is plenty to occupy your visual senses. If you are on the Royal Victoria to Greenwich Peninsular leg, then most of the action is on your starboard side. Looking back you can see over to the Olympic Park and looking forward, you can peer down on the approaching O2 complex and beyond that the towers of the Isle of Dogs and on to those of the City. You could also see the Shard, but then again you can see that from pretty well anywhere. The weather was fairly miserable on the day of my visit, but it was still worth seeing.

Finally you plunge down towards the Greenwich Peninsular Terminal and the end of your "flight". Disembarkation runs smoothly and you are all too soon back on Terra Firma

I think that it is one of those trips that is worth taking several time, varying the direction, time of day and season of the year. I suspect that, given the right conditions, sunrise and sunset could be spectacular. In my case, a sunrise trip seems unlikely but a sunset flight is a distinct possibility.

A couple of other things to consider. If you travel at off peak times the trip will last a little longer, as they run at a slower speed and, if you don't like the idea of sharing your trip with strangers, for a mere £86.00 you can hire a whole pod to fill with friends, or if you are feeling completely self indulgent (and have more money than sense) keep entirely to yourself. 

Finally, do keep an eye on the weather forecast and check with the TFL website before travelling. This form of travel is affected by high winds, it is also a potential target for a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. Both of these conditions will lead to the service being temporarily suspended (no pun intended) which could force you to hang around (I meant that one ;-) waiting for your flight, not the end of the world if you are just sightseeing, but it could be difficult if you are either commuting or have a very expensive ticket to an event at the O2.

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