Cross the Thames Up in the Air: Emirates Air Line

There are many ways you can cross the Thames in London. Besides walking, roads, trains, and tubes, you can also choose to cross via a rope hanging ninety metres above the water.

The Cable Car. Novelty transport high five!


Standard Promotional Shot. Photo: Katherine Pound

Having opened just before the Olympics, the Emirates Air Line (as it is branded corporately) isn’t all that new; although it does offer an alternative viewing platform across London. Now that I don’t live too far from it, a friend’s visit provided just the excuse to go on this new ride.

The Air Line is located east of Canary Wharf, and crosses the Thames between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Victoria Docks, at the heartland of the rapidly-changing docklands. It’s basically the East London version of the London Eye which has the added benefit of getting you somewhere. Officially.

I say “officially”, because apparently they designed the cable car for commuting. There are even two different speeds for the river crossing: a leisurely, tourist mode that takes 10 minutes; and a peak-time commuter speed that halves the journey time.


That’s about as practical as it gets. The cable car linked two Olympic venues and are now home a whole bunch of building sites (or shall I say in corporate-speak, “transformational developments at the heart of London”). It doesn’t help that it’s three times the cost crossing by cable car than by tube – even if it is the scenic route.

In fact, it was revealed in 2013 that only 4 (FOUR) Oyster users can be described as regular commuters. In the whole year.

Doesn’t matter; I was there as a tourist anyway, and so was everybody else. We arrived on a sunny Saturday and there was quite a queue congregating around the terminal. Much like the London Eye, the suits at marketing were very keen to project to us that we’ll be flying and branded everything with an aviation theme: my paper ticket a “boarding pass”; the brochure an “in-flight guide”.

We were recommended to go for the ‘Emirates Air Line Discovery Experience’ for £8.20, which gave us a “round-trip flight” without the need to “disembark”. Ha, avoiding queues: I wish that’s a common aviation experience.


It does climb very quickly…

It didn’t take long until we boarded our “flight” and began the steep ascend above the middle of the Thames. I have been on gondolas before, but not in the middle of a bustling metropolis and ninety metres above a busy river. Knowing how windy Greenwich peninsula can be, it does not bode well for a smooth sailing. But we survived. Both ways.

(p.s. Unless you can particular problems with heights, the journey was actually very safe, to the point that it was almost nondescript. Watch out for the occasion stopping, though. Hanging above water is both fun and terrifying.)

The journey took about 20 minutes and was pleasant enough – sunny weather always improves everything. As for the view:

It is perhaps the best place to view the new London: Canary Wharf; Thames Barrier; ExCEL; City Airport and the lot. After all, when you are hung high above the river, most visual obstacles are eliminated.

You can see that this side of Canary Wharf very clearly: Greenwich, the Olympic Stadium and the Orbit (a.ka. that red sculpture by the Olympic Park).

However, Canary Wharf is also an imposing wall that blocks everything to the west. Unless it’s the Shard or the arch over Wembley Stadium, not much can be seen. Compared to the London Eye, you don’t get the stereotypical London image.


These are the better-looking new builds and factories

Oh, and did I mention the “transformational developments” nearby are new builds, soon to be new builds and too new to be new builds? Thumbs up to regeneration?

The view does live up to its billing as ‘unique’, if quite industrial in character. As it wasn’t even meant to be touristy, it also is one of the most value for money tourist activity in town as well.

So much like the London Eye, it is well worth one trip. Pick a good day or a clear evening and tick the cable car off your list.

And hey, this part of London changes so much so quickly these days, maybe it’s worth going on every few months, just to monitor the progress of the massive, real-size, model construction going on in London.

Photo credit: all Katherine Pound.