Why The Hell Do People Go On Duck Tours?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 75 months ago
Why The Hell Do People Go On Duck Tours?

"Don't get set on fire" one of our colleagues says cheerily just before we set off on a Duck Tour. This is a reference to the incident in 2013 when a Duck Tour — one of the fleet of eight ex-wartime vehicles — went up in flames on the Thames; it wasn't a halcyon year for the company. But they kept afloat, bounced back and now even do something called A Quackmas Carol, god bless them.

We, however, are here for the classic 75 minutes. We've often wondered what it's like to be on one of those clumsy-looking yellow and blue machines, belching its way through Westminster traffic, and occasionally drifting down the Thames like a people carrier in a Yorkshire flood. Has the Duck Tour become a quintessential London tourist experience or is it just a load of quack?   

As we board, our confidence isn't helped by the introduction of a bearded guy apologising for things being 'a bit of a shambles', then asking a second guy if he knows where the keys are. The bearded guy turns out to be our guide, Matthew, and it's soon apparent he's a droll so and so.

The driver has the keys after all and as we start rumbling through Waterloo, Matthew gets stuck into the housekeeping: "No ersatz McDonald's milkshakes... We don't want you leaving behind a sticky legacy on our seats". Not only has this guy got a marvellous turn of phrase, doesn't he have exactly the same delivery as... yes, he does... TV's Alexander Armstrong! Maybe this is going to be alright after all.

See, we weren't making it up. Image from the Duck Tours website

The others aboard the Titania (isn't that just one letter away from Titanic?) include a mum and daughter from Surrey, a couple also from Surrey, a family from County Tyrone and a mother and small child from Richmond. There's also a guy wearing a jacket with STUNT CREW printed on the back. He's not here for work purposes surely? Two young men sit towards the back; Sam is from Canberra and has been in England since May. His mate, David is from Hertfordshire, and going on the tour was his idea.  

"I've done it before with a company I worked for," says David. "That was quite good fun, a nice way to see a few sights and go down the river. We're ticking all the boxes quite quickly, then going to have a beer somewhere else."  

There's a guy wearing a jacket with STUNT CREW printed on the back. He's not here for work purposes surely?

The classic Duck Tour does indeed tick off those touristy boxes with haste — whipping round the Imax ("It's huge," muses our guide) before circling round and heading towards the goodies at Westminster. For well-worn Londoners, some of the trivia is a touch vanilla (did we know that Big Ben is the bell, not the tower? Don't get us started on that one). But Matthew has some decent ammo up his sleeve too. The pate of Churchill's statue in Parliament Square, we learn, is electrically charged so that pigeons don't land and shit on it. Matthew also recommends we shun Starbucks for the coffee and homemade cakes at Methodist Central Hall: "Methodist cake... mmm."

Throwing ourselves to the mercy of the Thames

We begin to admire our guide's occasional bouts of flippancy too. "This is called Green Park. Because it's a park. And it's green," he deadpans, leaving a pregnant pause, then finally going into the probably tall tale about Charles II being a bit of a prat to his wife. "I've been doing this tour since 1943," Matthew sighs at another point, in a way that suggests he feels like he's being doing it that long.

The on the road banter is all well and good, but the thing we've all been waiting for is our date with Old Father Thames. This finally happens when we slip down the side of the MI6 building (Matthew twanging out the Bond theme over the mic) and then lurch towards the grubby ebb of the river. Is it the coffee we had earlier that's causing those palpitations? Or is it because this thing rolled off the production line when Glen Miller was just getting big?

Big Ben: a Duck Tours view

It's low tide, and the wheels of the vehicle initially grind along the river bed, but soon, we're bobbing along quite nicely, and can just about keep our eyes off the life jackets.

It's then that one of the major flaws of the tour becomes apparent; we've got an incredible perspective of Parliament but the cloudy plastic windows obscure the panorama and makes it almost impossible to get a decent photo. Tourists often have to view the city through a grim-grey fug — why add another layer to it?

Anyway, we make out it in one piece, and with one final joke from our guide about how he should be called Frinton-on-Sea (yes it's a conception joke, no it doesn't get the biggest laugh of the tour) we arrive back at Waterloo safe, dry but not on fire, and a little more knowledgeable about London.

As seasoned Londoners we've quite enjoyed it. It wasn't so much the unique mode of transport that made it, but our guide. What did the others think? "I don't have that much time in London so it was good to be able to see all the sights like that," says Sam, the guy from Canberra. "It's good to have a tour guide who can ramble on a bit like that. He was like Stephen Fry."

"Or Alexander Armstrong," says David.

So it wasn't just us, then.

The original article referred to two incidents involving vehicles in Liverpool. These vehicles were part of another company, which is now in liquidation, and nothing to do with Duck Tours Ltd in London.

Last Updated 05 February 2016

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