Should Transport for London be encouraging more of us to commute by boat?

A Thames Clipper boat in action in 2013. Image: Getty.

How to get more capacity on London’s transport network is a perennial debate. Upgrade signalling systems. Get longer trains. Build Crossrail 2.

But there’s one piece of infrastructure that’s already in place and cuts through the length of the city – and it’s debatable whether we’re making the most of it.

There are two commuter-style riverboat services that travel into the centre of London from either side of the city. There’s another, central only, one that operates between the two Tate galleries. And there’s a river crossing-style passenger ferry between Canary Wharf and the Hilton Docklands, across the river in Rotherhithe. (Did you know that was there? I didn’t.) All of these are operated by Thames Clippers.

Transport for London (TfL) itself runs the free passenger and vehicle ferry between Woolwich and North Woolwich (OK, pedants; Briggs Marine and Environmental operates it, but it’s a TfL service). Then there are various tourist services with running historical commentary, which commuters with hangovers and a day full of meetings are only going to use if they have a lot of disposable income or are trapped in an episode of The Good Place.

Freight takes up more space on the Thames. Construction of the super sewer will use the river to transport materials in an attempt to reduce HGVs on the road. The now-defunct Garden Bridge planned to do similar, in what was possibly the only sensible part of that whole project.

Yet there’s room for more. The Port of London Authority (PLA) notes that increased development near the river, notably at Nine Elms, brings opportunities for more commuter services. Indeed, a new pier at Battersea will be served by Thames Clippers in the near future. By 2035, the PLA wants 20m commuter and tourist trips a year, almost double the current figure.

So where are those trips going to come from?

There’s one service that seems obvious, but doesn’t currently exist: a route to City Airport. It’s on the river, right? Thames Clippers serves a pier further east, and the Woolwich Ferry already docks close by. Why not add a boat from the west stopping at North Woolwich?

Boring practical answers are: it’s actually a 15 minute bus ride from North Woolwich pier to the airport, and the DLR already goes there. But the DLR is only useful if you’re already in the City; if you’re around the West End it would be a lot easier to hop on a boat and whizz down the river.

Ticketing is an added complication to any expansion of services. London’s Travelcard and pay as you go systems work with a series of concentric ring zones, radiating outwards from zone 1, the most central, and most expensive: you simply buy a ticket for the zones you want to travel in.

But Thames Clippers don’t use the same zone boundaries. They divide the river into three zones: the west zone covers roughly the same are as zone 2 on that side of London (I suspect the actual dividing line is slightly further out than the zone 2/3 boundary on the tube map, but no matter). But the central zone goes all the way out to Canary Wharf, deep into the non-central Zone 2, and the east zone extends to Woolwich Arsenal, zone 4 if you took the DLR.

 

A map of Thames Clipper services. Click to expand.

None of this really matters, of course, because the Clippers don’t use TfL’s fares anyway. Your Travelcard isn’t valid (though it will get you a third off a standard fare). You can use pay as you go on Oyster, but that fare doesn’t count towards your daily cap. And it’s expensive: one journey in the central zone costs £6.30 on Oyster or buying online or with an app. The daily pay as you go cap, the maximum you can spend on all other forms of transport around zone 1, is just £6.60.

A month’s pass to commute between, say, Wandsworth and Blackfriars, costs £188.15. By way of comparison, a monthly Zone 1 & 2 Travelcard costs £126.80, you can use it on more than one mode of transport and journey times are roughly comparable. Although, to be fair, one of these journeys is probably a lot more pleasant than the other.

At any rate, we may be getting towards an explanation of why river services aren’t more popular.

One interesting footnote about the Thames Clippers fare policy is that it is partly controlled by City Hall. Peruse the fares chart, and you’ll spot some weird anomalies in the fares between West-and-Central and East-and-Central. Turns out that the RB6 route between Putney and Canary Wharf is operated under contract from TfL, and a mayoral directive sets the fares.

Thames Clippers was awarded RB6 after previous operators couldn’t make the route work commercially. Since 2013, the company has increased the number of passenger journeys and added more boats to the service. In theory, other river services could be brought back under TfL’s control – but in practice, while Thames Clippers is making a profit, there’s no reason to do so.

It’s unsurprising that TfL has no desire to absorb the full impact of the costs of river routes. Given that TfL has recently decided it can’t afford the planned upgrade to the Northern and Jubilee lines, there’s no way it’s going to take on another expensive service.


This is a shame, as making river transport an integrated part of the Travelcard system is an obvious way of encouraging use. Stockholm includes ferries in its own travelcard, and Sydney includes public ferries in its daily and weekly capping system.

But perhaps comparing London to these cities is unfair. After all, if you ask Transport NSW’s website how to get from central Sydney to, say, Manly, it tells you to get the ferry – it’s just the easiest option. Similarly, when your city is a collection of islands like Stockholm, it makes sense for ferries to be a seamless part of the system.

But in London, it’s faster to get from Westminster to Putney on the District Line. The RB1 route is mostly connected up by the District or Jubilee lines. Apart from the bit around Chelsea, which is an odd transport desert (and will stay that way, if residents succeed in overturning plans for a Crossrail 2 station), river services feel like an optional extra.

The PLA doesn’t envisage capacity issues restricting growth in commuter services, and though Thames Clippers is adding boats, it’s likely that commercial viability will be the big constraint in making the Thames a practical piece of transport infrastructure.

Unless, just possibly, you look east.

It’s easy to think of Thames-based public transport as just being for the area within Greater London. But Thames Clippers is looking at running a service from Gravesend to Embankment with a calling point at Canary Wharf – and did a four day trial in September. The whole journey takes 1 hour 10 minutes, a favourable comparison with the hour it takes Southeastern to get to Charing Cross.

Ticketing may not be as big an issue, depending on the type of season ticket a Kentish commuter chooses: currently, a Southeastern-only monthly ticket costs £252.30. There’s an option to pay £385.60 if you want a TfL travelcard on top, but if your home and social life is based in Gravesend, would you bother, or just go use Pay As You Go to move around London? Given the choice between a scenic commute on the river or playing sardines on Southeastern, this feels like a no-brainer.

The PLA believes there is potential for new piers at Barking Riverside, Thamesmead, Purfleet, Erith, Greenhithe and Grays. So instead of thinking of the Thames as a way to unlock London’s transport potential, it might be more useful to look towards Essex and Kent, and use the river to relieve the area’s creaking rail infrastructure.

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“The British have no food culture” – but London’s multicultural suburbs do

Bagels, of the sort one might find in Ilford. (These are actually at Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.) Image: Getty.

Last month, Angela Hartnett went on Desert Island Discs and said that the British don’t have a food culture: there are just some people who have money and can afford to pay for good food.

Hartnett is a deity in the culinary pantheon, and is unusual in that she is both a shining star and an eminently sensible person. A woman of such no-nonsense credentials that she laughed in the pock-marked face of Gordon Ramsey, and lived to tell the tale. She takes none of this cheffy, foodie willy-wangling seriously, because it is, after all, “just a plate of carrots”.

So I found her comment fascinating, and shaming. It feels true. I feel it as I walk up Islington’s Chapel Market on a Sunday, from the farmers’ market end to the daily market end. I felt it when I squealed with delight when my partner told me we were getting a Whole Foods at the end of the road, and when I moaned with disappointment when it turned out he was kidding. (We were, in fact, getting a joinery and an HSS Hire.)

I feel it when one of my neighbours at our housing co-op has to sign for my veg box or wine discovery crate, or when the Ocado van pulls up. I feel it when I drop off my food bank donations by the till at Waitrose or, worse, when I get an Uber to take it round in person. In Islington. Islington. Say it twice, for there are indeed two Islingtons.

But it also feels totally untrue. Who is the “we” here? Who are the British of whom we speak? What is this beige buffet of Britishness, class-ist, philistine, pale and bland as white bread?

I find all this talk of class alienating, because I – and I am inherent to any we I can participate in – was raised in a vibrant and class-fluid food culture. I’m sure it combined many diverse aspects of class, wealth and virtue signals, but it did so in such a mishmash that you could not hope to decode it, even with a copy of Debretts and minor public school education. I speak, of course, of the ancestral homeland, the Old Country.

Ilford.

 

Ilford: unexpectedly foodie. Image: Geograph.co.uk.

Ilford is a London suburb on the Essex/East End border, which, like a reverse Mecca or a shit Jerusalem, unites travellers from across the world in the fervent desire to get the hell out, go mad, or kill everyone. And, like Jerusalem, it has its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters, with further fractions etched out by Hindu, Sikh and Chinese diasporas, waves and tides of 20th century immigration ebbing and lapping on the shores of the Cranbrook Road. It became home to the refugees of innumerable wars and disaster areas: Ugandan Indians, Kurds, Rwandans, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. And the economic migrants, Nigerians, Polish, Hungarian. It was an Ithaca: a place you had hoped would be journey’s end, but was in fact a bit of a disappointment. A rest rather than a new beginning. A bad motherland, to which we are all ambivalently attached.


Say what you like about Ilford, but it is a place where you’ve been able to find tahini, turmeric and jackfruit since decimalisation. Most of these items, you could buy at any hour of the day or night, and be served by a tiny child who had been left to mind the shop whilst the adults were at second jobs or night school, at the mosque or synagogue, or in prison. Purchase and consumption of these items signified nothing, except the taste of home.

And it really didn't matter whose home. On festivals we would exchange samosas or jalebi or pierogi or hammantashen or honey cake with our neighbours and drink masala chai three doors down. There is a whole world of dumplings, and a season for each one. We consumed a lot of chicken: fried pieces in boxes, or in a soup lovingly simmered for the precise amount of time to extract the maximum amount of guilt.

On a Sunday mornings you can wander along Barkingside High Street, which is by any normal metric an utter shithole, and join a queue for fresh Sri Lankan curries or Jewish bagels or Italian gelato. There is an egg-free cake shop, British, Halal, Kosher and African butchers and fishmongers. There are four Jewish delis and bakeries, ranging from the glatt to the glitzy. There is no shortage of grilled meat, kebabs, chicken shops, noodle bars. Vast banqueting suites accommodate large celebration meals, and local cooks cater for weddings of some thousand guests, often in marquees in suburban back gardens.

You could accuse us having no culture in Ilford – the cinema long ago became a bingo hall which became a mega-mosque which became flats – but you cannot say we have no food culture.

That said, and without wanting to sound racist against, y’know, white people, I do kind of agree that the British in general have no food culture. I can go to the house of any of my Indian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Israeli, Nigerian, West Indian, or Scandinavian friends, safe in the knowledge and mutual understanding that I am going to be fed. And time and again I have been baffled and outraged by friends (only ever the white, British ones; and the whiter and more British they are the more likely this is to happen) turning up at my house, having already eaten, as if I wasn’t going to feed them like foie gras geese from the moment they arrived to the second they left.

Food is my culture. I feel a twitch on the end of each strand of my DNA, like the taste of madeleines on a thousand foreign tongues. I feel it in my bones and the bones of my ancestors as they dissolve into distant soil: come, sit, eat.

A London curry house in action. Image: Getty.

In Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins boasts that he can pinpoint here a person is from by listening to the way they talk. “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” I once had a linguistics tutor pull the same trick on me. It was creepy.

But I would defy him to do the same thing now. Talk to a young Londoner. The ubiquity of Multicultural London English is a great leveller. On the top deck of the bus, you can’t tell the schools apart. And whilst there is a huge gulf between rich and poor, and the extremes of both in this capital are truly horrifying, there is a Multicultural London way of speaking.

There is a Multicultural London way of eating, too. In the centre of town, and in the places where being Minority Ethnic is not a minority position, there is a London Multicultural Food Culture which is divorced from class. An immigrant, diasporic, food culture. A sense of the importance and significance of food and meals and flavours. An appreciation of our own and your neighbours’ diverse food heritage. A love of the marketplace and the communal table. An ear for languages where foreign is the same word as guest and friend. The importance, virtue, culture, and significance of hospitality.

Also, to be honest, some asshole’s going to sprinkle sumac and pomegranate seeds on your kebab wherever you are, from Ilford to Islington. What you are prepared to pay for it, in what environs, and with what brand of soap in the bogs, is another story. And this is where the the conversation goes full circle: if you have no food culture, but you do have money, you can afford to buy one in, from the Connaught or Ottolenghi or Whole Foods or Deliveroo or Blue Apron or the DietChef.

Maybe I’m guilty of over-romanticising the immigrant food experience. The food of poverty, the bread of affliction, the cheap cuts of meat, the over-reliance of sweet treats, the economic and social impoverishment of generations of immigrant women slaving over hot stoves to feed the family on a pittance whilst the neighbours turn up their noses. We should talk of the dietary diseases more prevalent amongst People of Colour and second generation immigrants. We should talk of the chicken shops around the school gates. We should talk about the amounts of money spent on marketing crap food at kids and the totally other amounts of money being spent on school meals, home economics lessons, growing spaces, playgrounds. We should talk about those food banks.


My partner is from white, British working class stock. They do things differently there. I now too turn up Having Already Eaten, because I learnt the hard way: line your stomach, or you’ll end up singing/falling over/throwing a chair/throwing up/getting naked by 3pm at a Romford wake because you assumed that lunch would be served. It’s only five miles from Ilford and Romford, but it may as well be 500 or 5000.

I don’t know what they make of me and my food. Foreign muck? Posh nosh? Do I give off wafts of a different culture entirely, like the tell-tale scent of frying onions and or slow-cooked sabbath cholent? Like the banquet of curry smells from next door when all their kids are home from university, the eye-watering wince of vinegar being boiled for pickles, or the uric tang of a hot pho pot bubbling away two doors down or the unseasonal barbecue from the house behind, a familiar-unfamiliar meat, like mutton or goat?

Throw the windows of your semi in Ilford open on a spring morning and you’ll get waves of bacon, chai, cholla bread. And the sounds of TVs in a dozen languages, and music in a dozen different keys, and Sikh builders shouting at Polish builders, and the soft shoe shuffle of the Lubovitchers and the revving engines of the rudeboys before we all go home for Sunday lunch.

Sunday lunch: maybe that’s something we can all agree on. That you should have a Sunday lunch with your mum or your auntie or your nan and whoever else is around. You gather at table, at your folks’ house or the Toby Carvery or your uncle’s restaurant, with a mountain of roast beef or bags full of bagels and plastic containers from the deli or six different curries and chutneys, with the old folks telling the same story for the hundredth time, and the ageless bickering of siblings and the screaming of babies. Maybe we can agree on the Great British Sunday Lunch, whatever the menu, as our shared food culture.

Leave room for pudding.

Sara Doctors writes about food and culture, and tweets as @UnusualSara. A version of his article first appeared on her blog.

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