Friday, 26 January 2007
Getting to know you part 1- On the buses
History tour: Bus tours are a great introduction to the city
At 1,570 square kilometres, London is one of the world’s biggest cities. And it packs a lot of history into those square kilometres. The Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, even Harrods. It’s hard to know where to start. Which is where the many guided tours you can take come in. There are several out there. Bus tours, walking tours, river boat tours, even ‘duck’ tours (a trip in an amphibious Second World War DUKW).
Bus tours are, quite obviously, tours on open-top buses (usually, some might be closed top). There are two main companies – The Big Bus Company and The Original London Sightseeing Tour. They appear to be very similar according to my investigations, although I’ve only been on the Big Bus tour. Both include river tours, both offer online discounts, both have a choice of routes and tickets are ‘hop on, hop off’ and last for 24 hours (Original’s last for 48 hours until 28 February). However, Big Bus offers a free walking tour (which is definitely worth taking) and costs slightly more.
What traffic: The congestion charge has made bus tours a much more pleasant journey
The tours have pre-recorded commentaries in a variety of languages, as well as live English-language commentaries. The English one is best, if you get the right guide. But that’s where the ‘hop on, hop off’ facility comes in useful. If your guide isn’t entertaining enough, you can always get the next bus. I got off at least two buses before happening across the perfect guide – a very funny Northern chap who had us waving at the billionaires in Knightsbridge and drolly pointed out that Westminster, at “only 1,000 years old,” was the new part of London (compared to the City, which dates back around 2,000 years).
Big Bus doesn’t seem to offer the walking tour I did any more, but it does still have a selection of three. The Ghosts by Gaslight one looks interesting. The one I chose was a Da Vinci Code tour. It maybe wasn’t the best if you hadn’t yet read the book and planned to, because it gave the end away. But for those who had read it, or didn’t mind too much, it was great. Basically a history lesson dressed up as a walk through a popular book/film, the guide (a lovely man with a big umbrella so we could recognise him) was incredibly knowledgeable. His familiarity with both the book and London’s past was impeccable – though he was at his most gleeful when pointing out one of the book’s many ‘adaptations’ to London’s geography and history. Alexander Pope, for example, didn’t preside at Isaac Newton’s funeral – he wasn’t even invited.
The bus tours are a great way of scratching London’s surface. They take visitors around all the best-known landmarks, while teaching you about some the lesser-known history. A wonderful introduction to the city. And say what you like about the Congestion Charge, at least it’s thinned out the traffic enough to keep these tours on the move.