London’s end-of-summer, riverside bash may be a modern tradition, but it’s undergoing a sea change this year. Reduced funding means there will sadly be no fireworks or night carnival, but the good news is that for the first time since the festival began in 1997, it will span ten days instead of a single weekend and encompass dozens of events – lots of them family friendly and most free. Here’s our pick of the best happenings.
Best for families: The Great River Race
Lacking the sporting seriousness of the Thames’s Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, but probably not the competitive edge, this Great River Race starts in Docklands and, 21 miles later, ends at Ham in Surrey. More than 300 crews from all over the world compete to complete the course in the fastest time. Viewing points include 12.10pm at Tower Bridge, and 2pm at Kew Bridge.
11am-3pm, Sat Sep 7.
Best for boaties: St Katharine Docks Classic Boat Festival
There’s a lot of money bobbing about on these moorings beside Tower Bridge. During the festival’s two weekends there’s a rare chance to explore some luxury boats as they welcome all aboard for guided tours. The Queen’s rowing barge Gloriana (which led the Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012 and will be on display from 14-15 September), the S.T. Challenge (open to the public from 12-15 September) and a selection of Dunkirk Little Ships are just some of the vessels you can visit. If gawping at the boats and daydreaming about sailing the seven seas gives you an appetite, you can gulp down a relatively affordable taste of the high life at the St Katharine Docks Good Food Market. Adding to the jollity are dockside activities, including displays by the Sea Cadets and walking tours which visitors can sign up for at the ‘Celebrating St Katharine’s’ pop-up in Ivory House.
St Katharine Docks, St Katharine’s Way, E1W 1LA. Tower Hill. Sat-Sun 11am-6pm. Sat Sep 7 - Sep 15.
Best for foodies: Butler’s Wharf Blackout
Ten days of weird and romantic dining events at the riverside restaurants of Butler’s Wharf reflect the extended reach of this year’s festival. Each evening from 8.30pm the big switch-off will take place, allowing diners to enjoy views of the river and Tower Bridge unspoilt by light pollution. Along with their own special events and menus, the restaurants (Le Pont de La Tour, Cantina del Ponte, Blueprint Café and Butler’s Wharf Chophouse) are joining forces to host an alfresco candlelit banqueting table seating 140 every night.
Butler’s Wharf, Shad Thames, SE1 2YE. London Bridge. 020 7940 1833. £35 (three courses, drink on arrival and coffee). Banquet served at 7pm daily. Fri Sep 6 - Sep 15.
Best for bells and whistles: ‘1513: A Ships’ Opera’
Artists Richard Wilson and Zatorski + Zatorski come together to present the festival’s flagship event – a day long performance on the river, travelling from the mouth of the Thames Estuary to Tower Bridge. Using vessels as instruments that will bring back the historic sounds of the waterway, the ambitious event will be conducted – by semaphore – from the top of a lightship. It will involve musicians who’ve worked with artists such as Björk and Oasis, playing such ‘instruments’ as steam whistles, bells, horns, hooters, sirens and a canon. The first act will see the 1928-built steam tug Barking whistle her way from the mouth of the Thames to Trinity Buoy Wharf. There, the rest of the vessels will gather before heading West to perform the finale – an explosion of sound, light and steam in the Pool of London, between Tower Bridge and London Bridge.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, 64 Orchard Place, E14 OJW. Canning Town or East India DLR. 6.25pm. Pool of London, SE1 2UP. Tower Bridge. 7.45-8.30pm. Sep 14.
Best for funnies: The Deluxe River Cruise
American conceptual artist Doug Fishbone presents a darkly comic and surreal live commentary with slideshow accompaniment which aims to help you see the capital and its best-loved attractions as never before. Fishbone (did he get this gig because of his name, we wonder?) is perhaps best known for his 2004 work ‘30,000 Bananas’, which was installed in Trafalgar Square for a day before being eaten by passers-by. Given his CV, you can expect the unexpected on these festival river tours. Booking is essential.
Westminster Pier, Victoria Embankment, SW1A 2JH. Westminster or Embankment. £10, £8 concs. 1.30-2.15pm, 4-4.45pm. Sep 14 and 15.
Best for the sound of music: An Afternoon of Singing at the Scoop
First up in an uplifting afternoon of performances by choirs from far and wide is a 600-strong children’s choir belting out songs inspired by the maritime history of the Thames (1-2pm). Then at 2.30pm it’s the turn of 800 grown-ups from choirs around the world who, in a long-standing festival tradition, will raise their voices to raise money and awareness for WaterAid. They’re followed by the Trad Academy Sea Shanty Choir at 4pm, and the afternoon ends with a set from the all-female pop choir Lips, whose repertoire ranges from ’50s girl-pop to garage (5-5.45pm).
The Scoop, More London, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, SE1 2DB. London Bridge. Sep 15.
The Thames Festival runs at various riverside locations on Fri Sep 6 - Sep 15. Find out more things happening at the Thames Festival 2013.