When you live in a historic, varied place like London, there’s no shame in turning tourist once in a while. The children had been clamouring to go on a guided tour for ages, so when London Duck Tours invited us on one of their amphibious adventures, the answer was a unanimous ‘yes’.
“I’m actually kind of scared, because it looks like we’re climbing into something from World War II”
I overheard an American youngster saying this when we were about to board the DUKW, our transporting vehicle for the 75 minute tour. And he was right. The ‘Ducks’ in London are military vehicles dating back to WWII, and were used on D Day, to transport troops across the Normandy beaches. Since then, they’ve been rebuilt, with rooves added, so that the international tourists who now ride in them aren’t exposed to the British weather.
The tour starts out on London’s Southbank, on a street that runs between the Royal Festival Hall and the London Eye, near Waterloo Station.
Riding in the DUKW prompted a lot of smiles and waves, from inside as well as from passers-by. You couldn’t get away from the fact that the trucks had originally been designed for beaches, not roads: it felt a little like sitting in a car that’s straining along in first gear. With the roll-down plastic windows there’s very little insulation (top tip: wear your woollies). If it had been raining, it might have been more difficult to see out of wet windows. But luckily, the sun burst forth on the morning of our tour, and we were able to gaze out onto the splendours of the UK capital through an open window.
It was a quiet day on the roads, so we had a good view of the House of Lords, Westminster Abbey, the lions around Nelson’s Column, Admiralty Arch and Pall Mall. Our guide was an old-school gent with a drooping moustache and a plummy voice. He took pains to point out some of the more exclusive parts of London’s history, like the RAC and Carlton ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs, as well as the Ritz. After reaching Hyde Park Corner and Wellington Arch, site of the Battle of Waterloo, we trundled down the side of Buckingham Palace (no tour buses are allowed to drive past its front), and then on via 55 St James Street, an art deco building that is the headquarters of London Underground.
And then, we took a turn and nudged shiftily down the side of the MI5 building. After a quick change of driver, the DUKW charged down the shingle, its engine screaming, and hurtled into the Thames. It was unnerving, especially as the water was practically at nose-level and our guide had to keep reminding people not to lean out. If another vessel sailed anywhere near us, the DUKW was sent heaving over the waves. But once we’d got used to it, the ride was a pleasant way to see London, and Westminster, from a different angle.
After the voyage down the river, the DUKW emerged, took a few moments for all the water to gush out of its undersides, then took us back to the starting point.
Like everything in London, the tickets for the Duck Tour are pricey: £26 for adults, and £18 for children. But if you can afford it, the novelty value of the trip (you don’t often get to drive and sail in the same vehicle), and the quality of the guide’s commentary, make it worthwhile. At seven years old, my son was just old enough to take an interest in the historical facts. They were rather lost on my four-year-old daughter, but she still enjoyed the ride. If you’re a tourist in the capital, I’d recommend this as a fun way to see London (so long as the weather’s on your side……)
London Duck Tours leave from Belvedere Road, Waterloo, London, SE1 which is near to the London Eye (between Jubilee Gardens and The Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall) and a short walk from Waterloo tube and rail stations. We took a Classic Sightseeing Tour; others are available, including James Bond and Pirate Adventure Tours.
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