Big Bus Tour - How Tourists Get To See London

 by Martin Belam, 29 August 2005

My wife and I are working through a lengthy list of tourist things we've always wanted to do in the UK but never quite got round to - I suppose we should have posted it to 43 Things. Anyway one of them was to spend a day touring London in an open-topped bus. We've done this ultra-naff thing as genuine tourists in Dublin and York before, with varying degrees of success (the Dublin bus kept us dry, the York bus was over-priced and under-long). I was quite interested to hear how my home city was portrayed to tourists, and the missus was performing a bit of a 'secret shopper' role, as she works for a tourist attraction and wanted to hear what was said about that in particular.

We joined one of the Big Bus Company routes at Trafalgar Square. The tour guides don't seem to have a set patter, which is just as well as they obviously have to improvise for long periods due to the imprecise nature of the London traffic. On the whole the commentary really made me realise that you are nothing in tourist history if you are not connected to either the monarchy or the Second World War, although Diamond Geezer would have been pleased to hear that something as obscure as the River Fleet got a passing mention.

Our particular guide introduced himself with "I'm Roy, and the bus is called Dave" and the jokes didn't get more sophisticated than that - he had a couple of well-rehearsed routines about Nelson's return to the UK in a barrel of brandy, and about Florence Nightingale Lady of the Lamp/Limp/Lump. My old workplace Bush House got a mention too. According to our guide, not only was it the home of the BBC's World Service, but also the proud possessor of the strangest statue in London - two grown men fighting over an ice cream cornet.

Bush House

There was one cringe-making piece of narrative where he retro-fitted the explanation that the wedding between Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer had taken place at St. Pauls because "it was the people's cathedral and she was the people's princess". On the whole though he stayed on the informative side of cheesy, and I admired his ability to 'improvise' banter with the different nationalities on the bus.

On the day we chose to go the weather was appalling, and we ended up after two hours huddled together on the top of the bus in our complimentary plastic ponchos shivering with cold, soaked to the skin. The rest of the passengers had an excuse, they happened to be in London when they were in London, for us though there was none - we could have done this any day.

We ditched the last bit of the route to Buckingham Palace and instead jumped off at Westminster Bridge in search of a warm drink and a warm place to sit down. Having headed back to the North side of the river we realised we were in one of those places which is a 'tourist trap', but actually has no tourist facilities. One Cafe Nero with no seating room was the only placed we passed, until we headed down back towards Trafalgar Square and got into a little Italian cafe - Café Churchill - on Parliament Street. It was a bit weird and a bit dirty, and although we were peckish we opted just to have drinks.

So we headed back towards town and grabbed a spot of dinner before returning to Trafalgar Square to meet-up at 6 o'clock for one of the walks that gets thrown in free with your bus ticket - but that is another story.

It isn't cheap to do the bus ride. You get unlimited 24 hour travel on the bus, a free cruise up the Thames, and the chance to go on four different walks, but the prices are £20 per adult and £8 per child. No wonder London is one of the most expensive cities in Europe to visit.

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