Simon Calder: Know your station, if you want the best views of London

The man who pays his way

Arrival in a new city should be inspirational. But if you happen to be an airline passenger who's just touched down, all too often, cost and convenience conspire to render your arrival ignominious.

Just consider London. When you're flying into Heathrow, the approach is spectacular. The usual flight path goes straight over the capital and, on a clear day, the city is laid out like a map with landmarks such as the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye to help you (and possibly the pilot) get your bearings.

Once landed, though, the principal exits on public transport usher you below ground for a good few miles. Even when the Piccadilly Line pops out of its burrow, the above-surface journey into the capital comprises mundane suburbia. The Tube slips below ground when things start getting interesting. New arrivals emerge, blinking, at Piccadilly Circus, with no sense of how London fits together.

Starting this summer, though, London has a fresh face that transforms the welcome to visitors. The old Blackfriars station on the north bank of the Thames has been extended so that it straddles the river, with an entrance at either end. The new trans-Thames railway station opened in 2011, but only this summer has the shroud of builders' hoardings been removed. And the results are spectacular.

London already has a score of bridges over the Thames and, of course, they all have views. What makes Blackfriars different is its location at the fulcrum of the capital. The glass-sided platforms provide a vista of the core of London that could previously be glimpsed only fleetingly from moving trains.

The upstream view is impressive enough, with the curve of the Thames guiding the eye to Somerset House, the South Bank Centre and the heart of government beyond. Downstream is even better, with the greatest hits of Sir Christopher Wren and Renzo Piano on show in the shape of St Paul's Cathedral and the Shard. (Blackfriars station was originally known as St Paul's.) Tate Modern, the Oxo Tower and Tower Bridge add to the field of vision, with Canary Wharf and Greenwich beyond.

Go Gatwick for that Manhattan transfer

All this awaits the new arrival with the good sense to land at Luton or Gatwick, and take one of the four First Capital Connect trains each hour from those airports' stations to Blackfriars. Whether you are flying in from Scotland or have friends arriving from overseas, Luton and Gatwick suddenly have more appeal because of the new opportunity for a spectacular entrance.

Gatwick has the edge, because the journey in from the Sussex airport provides an excellent mobile overture. Sit on the right as you approach the centre for a view of the colony of concrete, steel and glass that makes up Canary Wharf, comprising our best shot at Manhattan, and an unusual side-on view of Tower Bridge.

Then shift to the left to see the Shard close up: it grows out of the concourse of London Bridge station. After pausing at the UK's busiest platform, the train passes within inches of Southwark Cathedral and threads beside the roof of Borough Market, before a sharp right to Blackfriars, now a window on a world city.

Let's hope the planet's tourists catch on soon – even though, as you may have read here previously, the lift system is designed to confuse Johnny Foreigner. For platform 1, press 2; for platforms 2, 3 or 4, press 1.

The trouble with a tunnel...

This is the age of the cross-Channel train, but Eurostar from Paris or Brussels to London is visually unrewarding: no White Cliffs of Dover to welcome you, just dark recesses beneath Folkestone until the train emerges from the Channel Tunnel. And, just as the capital's outskirts get interesting, the view fades to black once more for the subterranean approach to St Pancras.

How different it was 20 years ago, before the Tunnel opened, when ship and train were the natural way to arrive. One man, not normally known as a travel writer, provided the perfect introduction to London by train through Kent: "The railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings …."

The writer had just returned from Spain, but not on easyJet into Gatwick. That passage was written by George Orwell on the boat train from Dover, and comprises almost the last words of Homage to Catalonia – his chronicle of the tragedy and treachery of the Spanish Civil War.

The book appeared just before the start of the Second World War and its conclusion presaged that conflict: "The men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star