Messing about by the river

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions
a view from the Shard

a view from the Shard

The south bank of the Thames in London has changed out of recognition in the last fifty years. So altered has it become and so popular with visitors and Londoners that you can easily spend a whole day just wandering from London Bridge to Waterloo station.

For a start, London Bride has altered under the steely glaze of the Shard, the tallest building in Europe. Not only is it a landmark it is a tourist attraction as people head up to the 68th floor to view London from the skies. You can book in advance but part of the problem is haze and mist. They can ruin a good view just as they can if you visit another London landmark near Waterloo, the London Eye, so pick your day carefully and perhaps have an eye to the weather forecast! When the Shangri-La hotel opens in May it will add another south bank magnet just as the views and the restaurants have become.

Southwark cathedral from the Shard

Southwark cathedral from the Shard

Across the road from London Bridge is Southwark cathedral one of the few buildings that hasn’t changed much over the last couple of hundred years.  The cathedral is smaller than many and seems hemmed in by all the buildings around. Inside is a revitalised café area proving a quiet place for a snack compared to the businesses outside. Popular with Londoners who come to eat the lunches in the grounds, it’s  also popular with the blackbirds and starlings who try to relieve you of it.

One of the reasons people lunch here is because the neighbouring Borough Market has become so busy that it is hard to find space to stand and eat let alone sit. Trendy restaurants jostle with traditional fruit and veg markets, specialist food suppliers, fish stalls and take-away food outlets. It has to be one of the best markets you can find and, because of its location, is a favourite with visitors as well. Overseas tourist boards now use it for showcasing their products to the public.

Crossing a line as you continue to walk west you’ll pass the Anchor, a pub that harks back to the time of Shakespeare. It used to be a brewery and, it is said, was the site of bear and bull-baiting pits which appealed to those disreputable types that London theatre attracted in those days. But then that was normal four hundred years ago. Move forward nearly two centuries and it was here that Dr Johnston worked on his dictionary. The modern era has caught up though as opposite the pub is a Nando’s and that is where holidaymakers with young families go.

Those families might just have come from the replica Elizabethan ship that Sir Francis Drake immortalised – the Golden Hind. This ship may not have been at the Spanish Armada but it was used by Drake to circumnavigate the world but it’s the one that everybody knows. The replica shows you how short sailors must have been to clamber through the decks or how adept they were not to bash their heads as the scurried from one end to the other. At least Drake had a small cabin to himself! This replica celebrates its 41st birthday on April 5th and it too has circumnavigated the world as well as appearing in films and TV series. The trust that operates it hopes that it will venture onto the seas again.

The Globe

The Globe

The Elizabethan link is continued a few hundred yards further along where the Sam Wanamaker inspired replica of the Globe Theatre is to be found. From the outside she looks as Shakespeare would have seen her. From the inside, the benches the audience might have sat on are hard and a pillow is useful if the play is one of Shakespeare’s longer ones. But then in his day, many more would have stood. Just opened is the newly named indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, that reveres the man who, as a foreigner inspired by our national playwright as some have called him, contributed so much to our heritage on the south bank. Incidentally, they are still fund-raising the last £160,000 that they need to cover the costs so if you can make a donation…

Around here there are streets like Clink Street which remind the visitor that this was a prison was; where else does the slang “clink” for prison come from?  Tour the prison which is still sited on the spot where a prison was built 870 years ago making it one of the oldest prisons in England.  In Elizabethan days, prisons, theatres, bawdy houses and food stalls would have been widely accepted and known. What wouldn’t have been would be a beach.

Yes, at low tide there are sandy stretches where dogs are walked, kids can play and sand sculptures take place like the day I saw a sofa being carved in between the outgoing and incoming tides. It is also the time that the mudlarks and others search the foreshore for finds. Here you’ll see rusting chains, the remains of wooden stakes for piers and rusted anchors embedded in the mud. But on a sunny day, it can make you wonder whether you are still in a huge modern city.

Back on dryer land you’ll pass Tate Modern and come to the smaller Bankside Gallery which celebrates the work of water-colourists and painter-printmakers. Both galleries are free to enter and engender that artistic feeling that the rest of the South bank now radiates.

Wherever you walk along the river paths, there will be fast food stalls selling not only the ubiquitous hamburgers but drinks both cold and hot. In winter there are the chestnut sellers, in summer the ice-cream vendors.  There will also be street artists beguiling you with their music, their art or their mime. And all the while you have the boats and ferries plying the river as they have done for centuries past. The difference is that today it is no longer as crowded – or as grubby -as it was fifty or sixty years ago. Then the Thames was a huge working port, today’s it’s a port for leisure.

Further on is a collection of concrete buildings which Prince Charles may not like but which are as part of the south bank as any other. The National Theatre, The National Film Institute, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Festival Hall are all part of London’s modern musical, theatrical and artistic scene.

And I’ve still not made it to waterloo station or meandered more than about a hundred metres south of the river. There are still the open stalls of thousands of books and prints to look at in the warmth of the afternoon sunshine just as there used to be in Farringdon Street thirty years ago. But it has taken me all morning and part of an afternoon to get this far. That’s because when I first knew the south bank there was hardly anything to attract your attention; today there is almost too much. But that’s fine for the visitor. In that time I’ve probably not walked more than a mile or so, hardly spent any money other than on drinks, yet learnt more about the heritage of London both old and new than if I had spent all day running to see different parts of the capital.

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