Gliding through Tower Bridge, London reveals itself as a glorious symphony of Victorian and futuristic shapes, writes Pamela Wade
It turned out to be a brilliant mistake. Somehow, I had set my alarm for an hour earlier than I'd intended, and it was only after I was up and dressed that I realised it was actually just 5.30am. I toyed briefly with the idea of crawling back into my comfy bed, but stuck with Plan A and, wearily resigned, headed up to the top deck.
This hadn't been my best cruise with Silversea, normally a deliciously indulgent luxury experience. Gales had prevented our scheduled departure from London's Tower Bridge, and instead, we'd sailed from the utilitarian wasteland of Tilbury Docks. Then an Atlantic storm had, during our circuit around Ireland, forced us to bypass Galway. None of this, naturally, was Silversea's fault.
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The shore excursions helped distract from the unforeseen circumstances. First, there was little Fowey, in Cornwall, full of visitors, dogs and Cornish pasty bakeries, where we'd been driven over the moors to have a cream tea on board a century-old steam train as it puffed through the summer-lush countryside.
Cork had its English Market full of dedicated food producers under an ornate vaulted ceiling. Cute little Bantry brought a splendid manor house and our first references to The Troubles.
That grimly fascinating story continued in Londonderry, with a side of the Giant's Causeway. It reached its climax in Belfast with its murals and still-in-operation Peace Walls; plus, of course, the fascinating Titanic museum. Dublin presented its own everyday tragedies at EPIC, the emigration museum, mitigated by the Guinness Storehouse. Last of all was Holyhead in Wales, gateway to the glories of Caernarfon Castle, before the return to London and, hopefully this time, our triumphant arrival through Tower Bridge.
Our arrival was scheduled for 7.30am, but there was plenty to see even two hours before that — starting with the dawn. Tilbury had never looked so beautiful. A rose glow along the horizon intensified and spread, colouring the vapour trail streaks in the sky and making striking silhouettes of the port's container cranes, reflected in the rippled waters of the Thames.
As we passed under the soaring QE2 bridge, more people stumbled into the cosy Observation Lounge and I went out to claim my possie above the bow. The sky was bright now — a fabulous summer's day on the way — as we followed the river's winding route towards the city centre. The green spaces gave way to buildings, many attractive old brick, others striking, or ugly, modern glass and concrete; and then we got to the Thames Barrier.
The distance between the barrier piers, with their shiny silver shells, is 61 metres, deliberately exactly the same as the width of the opening in Tower Bridge, so it was instructive to see how much clearance Silver Wind had as it slipped through. Heaps, was the reassuring observation, and we glided on up the river full of confidence.
Passing under the world's most expensive cable car — just the £60 million — we had a wonderful view of one of the world's weirder buildings, the O2 Arena, its low domed roof pierced by a dozen towers. It sits on the Greenwich Peninsula, part of the river's giant S-bend that is instantly recognisable to every EastEnders fan. Next came the magnificent and satisfyingly symmetrical Royal Naval College, with right next to it the Cutty Sark in its glass pond; while in the distance, swapping sides as we wound along, was the tantalising spike of The Shard, and just visible beside it the roofs of Tower Bridge.
Two more bends and, finally, there it was, straight ahead, its Victorian Gothic contrasting with the futuristic glass shapes of the city's skyscrapers to the right, and The Shard to the left. If that wasn't enough of a stirring sight, the PA system on board was now playing, to the damp-eyed pride of the many Brits on board, Rule Britannia and Vera Lynn's greatest hits.
The morning rush-hour traffic was stopped as the bascules rose to their full height, and the Silver Wind glided, sure and certain, right through Tower Bridge. Land of Hope and Glory echoed from the walkways above; it truly was a glorious moment. Then we were through, there was the Tower on our right and HMS Belfast to our left, our close neighbour for the next 24 hours, as we moored alongside.
That was Silversea's final precious gift to us: instead of throwing us ashore that day, we had one more night on the ship, moored in the centre of this great city, iconic sights at every point of the compass. Many of them were within easy reach: Tower Bridge itself, with its glass-floored walkways and engine room full of mighty, but elegantly decorated, wheels and pistons; the Tower and The Shard; the Belfast, all grey paint, guns and rivets; and the Great Fire monument rewarding climbers of its 311 steps with magnificent 360-degree views.
It was all wonderful, and everyone was insufferably smug at having chosen Silver Wind, one of the very few cruise ships small enough to be allowed through Tower Bridge. On our last morning, sitting on deck being served breakfast by our friendly and familiar waiters, with Tower Bridge right there swathed in a golden, Turneresque haze, I forgot all about the earlier disappointments and was just so happy to be there.
Silver Wind departs London Tower Bridge on May 13 for a 12-day UK round-trip sailing. Fares start from A$11,610pp, based on double occupancy in a Vista Suite, and include all-suite accommodation with butler service, gourmet meals, complimentary wines, champagne and spirits served throughout the ship, and all gratuities.
Silver Wind also sails one-way from Tower Bridge to several other destinations this (northern) summer. silversea.com