My experience of the ‘Clipper’

‘The pontoons make berthing easy and efficient’: one of the Thames Clipper fleet arrives at Embankment Pier

In the latest of our excursions beyond CalMac/Waverley territory, CRSC President Iain Morgan takes us on a Clipper cruise — not the Clyde version, but on the Thames.

I have a couple of confessions to make. First, I have never been on Clyde Clipper, the popular Greenock-based catamaran that offers river cruises and other trips. Second, I am quite a fan of the Thames Clippers in London.

The Thames Clippers run a frequent service, leaving the Westminster Embankment in Central London at 20 minute intervals for Greenwich and the O2 Arena, continuing at rush hour to Woolwich. The journey takes about an hour and costs £6-£7, which compares favourably with the one-hour return trip from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay (£6.10). The route takes in 13 piers where brief calls are made.

A Thames Clipper heads downstream from the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee bridges, with the London Eye behind on the right and the Royal Festival Hall on the left

There are 11 modern Clippers, broadly in three versions — some built in 2001, some in 2007-8 and and the newest ones in 2015. They carry 220 passengers (150 for the 2015 version) and 3-4 crew.

The accommodation includes open deck space at the stern and a shop with tea, coffee, sandwiches, wine, beer etc — but no ‘knife and fork’ meals. The predominantly airline-style seating is comfortable. The one criticism I have is that on the newest covered design, there is only one toilet to cater for everyone on board. This doesn’t seem quite enough for 150 passengers, as evidenced by the fact that, on the journey I recently took, there often seemed to be a queue. The piers are floating pontoons, making berthing and gangway-handling much easier and more efficient.

I embarked on Galaxy Clipper (2015) at Embankment Pier, near Charing Cross station, and went as far as Greenwich, where Cutty Sark is situated. As we set off, we passed close to Hispaniola ex Maid of Ashton of 1953, which has been a floating restaurant there since the 1970s, and Tattershall Castle of 1934, a former Humber paddler, which serves a similar function. I don’t know what Hispaniola is like inside, but she looks a bit down-at-heel externally. As for traffic on the river, there are certainly a lot of commercial pleasure boats. For those feeling homesick, there is even one called Silver Sturgeon.

From the Thames Clippers you get a good view of many London landmarks — for example, the London Eye and Big Ben. We sailed beneath Blackfriars Bridge which, following the early phases of the Thameslink programme, now boasts a station spanning the river, with entrances/exits on both sides. Now, there’s an idea for Glasgow Central: we could then make it to our winter meetings at Jurys Inn without getting wet! We also came across one of several RNLI stations on the lower Thames.

HMS Belfast is overlooked by The Shard

Heading downstream we passed HMS Belfast and, at Tower Pier, where Waverley berths on her Thames sailings, we had a good view of Tower Bridge.

As well as pleasure craft there are working boats, including a ‘bin lorry’. Just after Tower Bridge we saw a stern-wheel ‘paddler’, Dixie Queen. After this, the Clipper makes swift progress, picking up speed from 12-14 knots to nearer 25.

Approaching the pier just before Greenwich, a crewman passes along the Clipper calling out “Anyone for Masthouse Terrace?” There are no takers and the vessel swings by without calling: memories of Innellan in the 1960s when the ‘Maids’ and Waverley sometimes missed calls there if there was no traffic.

After disembarking at Greenwich, we watched Galaxy Clipper depart for the O2 Arena: it was good to be able to see a vessel leaving at close quarters, unlike at so many Clyde piers now where the pier front is out of bounds. As she pulled away, the orange marking on her stern was clearly visible  one of the recommendations of the Marine Investigation into the sinking of Marchioness with the loss of 51 lives in 1989. Inadequate lookouts and visibility were cited as contributory factors.

Our arrival at Greenwich Pier, an hour after leaving Central London, made me reflect on the many sights I had seen. Travelling by Thames Clipper, you get a sense of how busy the river is and the different types of traffic that use it. All told, the Clipper journey is a much more enjoyable and pleasant way of travelling in London than by Underground — even if it does not offer the breadth of vistas you get on the Clyde.

That’s why I have made a resolution to go on Clyde Clipper at the next suitable opportunity.

All photos are copyright Iain Morgan.

Home from home: Thames panorama, with Silver Sturgeon in the foreground

Hispaniola ex Maid of Ashton

Former Humber paddler Tattershall Castle

Heading for Tower Bridge past a rubbish barge

A different type of paddler: Dixie Queen at Butler’s Wharf

Orange for improved visibility

Travelling at speed

Thames panorama: Big Ben from the water


Linking the Loch (Loch Lomond)

Three Lochs Tour — with a difference

Ferry Cross the Mersey

La France par ferry

A Cruise on Lake Windermere

Kingswear Castle — ‘A piece of living history’

A Cruise on Loch Katrine

A day out with Angus

A visit to St Kilda