London's new cable car launched yesterday. Boris and the media got to play on it in the morning, and then at noon the gates were opened to the public to take a ride. Queues had built up on both sides of the river, as you'd expect when there's a whopping great piece of fresh transport infrastructure to play with. The problem with such queues is that you get to share your cabin with randomly selected "other members of the public", and the overhead glide isn't then quite so personal. But later in the afternoon visitor numbers had thinned out enough to allow sparser boarding, even an entire cabin to yourself, without the need to fork out £86 for the privilege. Day 1 was certainly popular, but perhaps not as popular as I'd have expected. Lesson 1: try to come at an un-busy time.
The terminal buildings look a bit like a giant hairdrier, U-shaped with a glass-walled upper storey. At the head of the curve is the ticket office, where you can queue at the window to buy your thematically-named "boarding pass". There are also ticket machines, some of which are already prone to breaking down. If anything yesterday the queues for the machines were longer than the queues at the ticket windows, which just shows how willing 21st century consumers are to put real humans out of a job. But you can ignore all of that if you have Oyster Pay-As-You-Go, and wander straight in up the left-hand side. Lesson 2: best top up your Oyster card before you arrive.
As you pass through, you might like to read the delusional promotional texts that airline PR folk have stickered to the walls. A giant Dizzee Rascal urges riders to look towards Poplar to see his old school (not a hope of that). We're told that "William Turner" was inspired to start painting in Brentford (which is thirteen miles away, and they've got the wrong painter - try JMW). Charlie Chaplin was apparently born "just down the river from this very spot" (no, upriver, in faraway Lambeth), while Alfred Hitchcock was born "just down the road in Leytonstone". And so it goes on, with references to Big Ben and Frost Fairs and mini skirts (the latter supposedly big in Chelsea). This Thames-obsessed parade of irrelevance is clearly aimed at engaging people who don't know London well, and appears to have been written by one of them too. Lesson 3: this is definitely an attraction aimed at tourists, not commuters.
At the far end of the ground floor, through the ticket gates, is a space where you're free to stop and watch the gondolas taking off and landing. Do stop and gawp, especially if any unwelcome passengers are passing (eg a family with small loud children), because you might then avoid standing next to them in the queue upstairs. There's a lift if you need one, which is also the way that cyclists get their bikes through. This is the only cycle-friendly route across the river between Tower Bridge and the Woolwich Ferry, so it's sure to be welcomed. Lesson 4: try not to queue next to anyone you wouldn't want to share a cabin with.
You rise up into the boarding area, at the heart of the machine, where a giant wheel powers the cabins in, round and out. It reminded me of queueing for a theme park ride, which I guess is highly appropriate. Watch out for the control panel with its emergency stop buttons, and the sequence of grinning Londoners waving slightly too excitedly from the video wall. If you're on the North Greenwich side, also look straight ahead to see the tracks to the shed where they store the gondolas overnight. All the boarding staff are dressed smartly in black like stewards or stewardesses, even though they really work for a construction company. They'll likely try to get you to share a cabin, but it may not take much to persuade them otherwise if the queue's light. Lesson 5: ask to take the next empty cabin, you might succeed.
And you're off. As the cabin swings round, and the doors close, suddenly there is no escape. If it turns out you have no head for heights, there's nothing you can do now except endure the flight to the other side, all 1103 metres of it. You take off fairlysharply, rising swiftly into the sky, much faster than is ever the case on the London Eye. The usual speed is six metres a second, but they plan to slow things down to half that between 10am and 3pm to provide a longer tourist experience. Before long a disembodied voice kicks in, welcoming you aboard on your ascent to "a cruising height 295 feet". The airline-themed branding could be a lot worse, to be honest, and the interior of the carriage is a lot less Emirates-y than the stickered outside. Lesson 6: unless you're in a hurry, you'll get best value between 10am and 3pm.
It is a little bit humpety-bumpety as you roll over the top of the tower, but nothing too bad. If it's windy, you'll definitely notice. If it's hot and humid, a couple of high-up opening windows provide some ventilation. If it's wet, expect the glass to be too blotchy to take any decent photos through. But what most seems to unnerve the unwary on the way across are the unscheduled stops when a wheelchair user needs to board at either end. The cable grinds almost to a halt, everyone's left dangling in midair and the disembodied voice leaps in with a few words of reassurance. Each stop adds about a minute to your ride, an extra 20% of airtime, which if you're trying to get your money's worth is actually really good. Lesson 7: it's not that scary, but if you get vertigo, think twice.
And what of the view? The two main highlights are the Thames and the Dome, and then perhaps Canary Wharf in the middle distance. The cablecar rises much higher than the Dome, almost as high as its crown of yellow spikes, and so provides a much better view than the "climb to the top of the O2 for £22" attraction that opened there this week. Closer by, the landscape isn't especially lovely. On the North Greenwich side it's mostly car parks, plus space where one day flats might be built. On the Royal Docks side, the entire waterfront area is given over to scrap yards, rubbish dumps, warehouse facilities and factories, which almost certainly isn't what tourists were expecting, but might have a certain post-industrial charm. Lesson 8: best come on a sunny day, because it'll look drab when it's grey.
Look further afield and you'll soon see how incredibly flat East London is. Shooters Hill is the only outpost with significant contours, otherwise the landscape's level to the horizon across umpteen square miles of ever-decreasing housing estates. Downriver the Thames Barrier should be clearly seen, the M25's QE2 bridge considerably less so. The Olympic Stadium's very visible if you look carefully, if a bit small, also the Orbit alongside. The City's skyscrapers are outgunned by those in Docklands, and the Shard spends most of its time hidden behind the Canary Wharf cluster. If you've picked up the in-flight map before you boarded, that should help you to identify a few more famous-ish sights in amongst the indistinguishable urban sprawl. Lesson 9: you may need to ask for the map, try at the ticket office.
And before long you're descending again to the second terminal on the other side of the river. The last few seconds are slightly turbulent, like a plane coming into land, but nothing in any way disconcerting. Expect a mild disconnect as you step out of the moving cabin onto the platform, and then it's back down the stairs to ground level. There are further gates to pass through - this is where Oyster swipes your money - and then you walk outonto the piazza and decide what to do next. Many people yesterday were milling around for a while before deciding to go back again, which does instantly double the price of your day out, and the view is obviously identical. It could be a nice little money earner for TfL, but only if riders continue to turn up, and that's yet to be proven. I suspect the cablecar is something some many Londoners will do once and enjoy, probably sooner rather than later, but most will never come anywhere near. Lesson 10: long term, the future's reliant on getting tourists out here.