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."

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