Why you should care
Because visitors to London should really get their ducks in a row.
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Giant yellow ducks are putting a whole new spin on “going commando” in the British capital.
Beatrice, Miranda and Portia are just a few of the Shakespeare heroine-named vessels that make up London Duck Tours’ fleet — consisting of the amphibious World War II-era machines better known as DUKWs (D for designed in 1942, U for Utility, KW for all-wheel drive and dual rear axles).
Painted bright yellow and refurbished to meet strict safety requirements, today’s variety are more likely to draw giggles than enemy fire. It’s hard not to laugh, after all, at a boot-like truck rolling past Westminster.
In their former olive-green heyday, DUKWs ferried supplies between ship and shore for the Normandy invasion in 1944, and were used for transport in Sicily and the Pacific. In 1946, two men in Wisconsin conceived of the idea to give tours in these military craft, and the idea has since spread farther afield, most notably in Boston since 2004 and in London since 2003. DUKWs ferry 200,000 tourists each year for an eccentric look at London by land and by Thames, daring adventure seekers to make a splash, military style, while learning little-known facts.
The company hires humorists like Nick, an “out-of-work actor,” who endear themselves to crowds on 8,000 tours a year, sharing facts and more than a few stretched truths. By land, the crew “waddles” past the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, 10 Downing St. and Buckingham Palace.
“What’s the difference between the tax man and a taxidermist?” Nick asks, as we pass HMS Revenue & Customs. “The taxidermist lets you keep your skin.”
Sometimes the facts get mixed with fiction. As Buckingham Palace comes into view, Nick remembers when the queen’s boudoir was invaded by Michael Fagan in 1982. “I understand the Duke of Edinburgh visited Fagan in prison to ask about the location of the queen’s bedroom,” he quips.
Today’s variety are more likely to draw giggles than enemy fire.
Those looking to enjoy a bit of offbeat history can smoke it up at Winston Churchill’s favorite cigar shop, James J. Fox, or learn where to take afternoon tea: the Ritz or Kate Middleton’s pre-wedding base, the Hotel Goring. (Nick’s pick? The latter, it’s cheaper.)
The guide knows more about the DUKW than most World War II veterans, and he teaches us how to recognize the various regiments of British Army foot guards: their buttons. The Grenadier Guards’ are evenly spaced; Scots Guards in threes; Welsh Guards in fives.
For the less militarily inclined, Nick points out the “Chevy Chase circle” from National Lampoon’s European Vacation. “Kids, Big Ben, Parliament … again.” But all this is giving chase to why we’re on board: the big splash.
“It’s wet, it’s cold, it’s brown,” Nick shouts as the engine revs. Miranda races down the embankment adjacent to MI6 (Military Intelligence Section 6, aka the British CIA), splashing into the fast-moving current at a startlingly speed.
Passengers ride high on the water, as Miranda slows her pace and glides toward the Houses of Parliament. Nick regales the crowd with the feats of its architect, Augustus Pugin, and the hypocrisy of the public being locked out of restaurants housed in the seat of Britain’s democracy.
Nick channels his inner Churchill, sans cigar, with a flawless rendition of the statesman’s “Their Finest Hour” speech to rapturous applause.
When Miranda returns to shore, the tourists who heard about last year’s DUKW fire breathe easy, relieved to have survived the bad jokes and the murky Thames.
“Watch out for enemy snipers,” Nick shouts as Miranda finds her feet, giving those who’ve gone commando a final reason to duck.