Kansai Scene Magazine
 

 

Banking on London’s south side

The river sweats oil and tar — The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot

Strolling down the Queen’s Walk, a pedestrian route along the south side of London’s River Thames, I stepped on a fragment of TS Eliot’s epic The Waste Land. This poem about the human soul searching for redemption seemed appropriately etched here in South Bank because the area is historically the city’s entertainment heart. And entertainment is a Londoner’s salvation.

entertainment heart. And entertainment is a Londoner’s salvation. In the last two decades, the four-kilometer arc between Westminster and Tower Bridges has been overhauled by developers who have turned cheap land and derelict warehouses into prized entertainment attractions, residences, and offices. With refurbished dockyards and Victorian buildings melding with modern architecture, the area has been reborn.

This south-central wedge is divided into South Bank (Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge), Bankside (Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge), and the Pool of London (London Bridge to Tower Bridge). I lived here from 1990-4 but the recent changes rendered ‘home’ unfamiliar.

The area’s reputation as a lair of debauchery is centuries old, defined in the 1700s by prisons, sleazy inns, and brothels. In The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens described the public houses off Borough High Street, which leads to London Bridge, as “great, rambling, queer old places with ... material for ghost stories.”

As a district in the county of Surrey, Southwark (a London borough since 1889 and in which much of present-day South Bank and Bankside are situated) was beyond the puritanical reach of the city. It became a safe haven not merely for miscreants, but for entertainment such as dance halls, puppet shows, and theaters.

Fast forward to 1951. South Bank hosted the Festival of Britain, a celebration of post-war regeneration, giving a boost to the local economy and recognition to the area’s entertainment heritage.

Since 1894, Tower Bridge has been synonymous with London. A museum in its Gothic towers revealed the secrets of this audacious feat of Victorian engineering which took eight years and three million rivets to build. From the upper walkway, I admired London’s new skyline. Below, the bridge’s steel suspension appeared to float on the river, not unlike the HMS Belfast, moored 200 meters upstream.

The gunship, launched in Belfast in 1938 and active until 1965, proved a wonderful surprise full of nooks and crannies, the kind that made me pretend I was the ship’s captain. I lost command over the ranks, however, when troops of disorderly kids vied for control of the bridge.

Abandoning ship, I walked straight into Hay’s Galleria, a sleekly refurbished wharf that, in the 1850s, was known as the ‘larder of London’ for its cold storage of dairy goods. Today, there’s an eclectic blend of shops, craft stalls, and restaurants beneath a vaulted glass ceiling. It’s a fine space with a relaxed atmosphere.

I traded glass for Southwark Cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling. Upon entry, a guide ushered me to the spot where excavations in the 1970s unearthed a statue of a Roman hunter.

“Wow,” I said, truly impressed. “Yes,” the lady replied. “People have been around here for a long time”— apparently since 500 BC. But the cathedral was only consecrated in 1905 when a church on the same site was saved from the wrecking ball.

I inspected numerous tombs and monuments, and not all to bishops and cardinals, but to the likes of poet John Gower (d. 1408), “the first English poet.” A memorial to William Shakespeare shows him reclining nonchalantly in a frieze depicting 16th century Bankside. There is also a memorial to Sam Wanamaker (d.1993), the inspiration behind the new Shakespeare Globe Theater. His is the only memorial to a Jew in a British cathedral.

From there I wet my whistle with a pint of Guinness at The Anchor, one of Bankside’s most atmospheric pubs. Black beer and blue skies make a perfect combination in England. I savored the moment on the terrace, feeling as lofty as St. Paul’s Cathedral’s dome across the river.

The Tate Modern art museum housed in a converted power station epitomizes the bold, creative redevelopment of the area. It became an instant landmark on London’s new face when it opened in May 2000.

I gawked at the formidable brick building’s 99-meter high chimney. Inside, 88 airy galleries house the new and the familiar, such as works by Picasso and Rodin. They seemed almost stale in juxtaposition to the fresh interpretations of landscape and society.

My favorite exhibition was “The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen”. It consisted of a woman’s face projected onto a head-sized object under a couch as if she were trapped. She repeatedly said “It’s so beautiful” in various tones of voice, from sad to amazed to orgasmic. I thought that was terrific.

Next door, the thatched Tudor-style theater is like a huge bird’s nest with wooden benches. Originally situated on the north bank but later moved to the south, Shakespeare himself was part owner and cast himself in many of his own plays. The theater was (and is) a great victory for Bankside because its presence legitimized all forms of theatrical performance. So popular is the theater that the waiting list was three days long.

Nearby I visited Vinopolis. Dedicated to the experience and education of wine, this place uncorks 4,000 years of wine making history and generous tastings. The ‘cellars’ are realistically crafted sets such as Roman arches in the Italian section and a colonial Dutch house in the South African area. I used three of my five tasting tickets at the latter.

After lunching at Gabriel’s Wharf, a colorful arts and crafts square, I walked just west to South Bank Centre situated around and under Waterloo Bridge. It’s comprised of a number of theaters and galleries, such as the Hayward Gallery and its fine modern art. In terms of volume and variety of annual events packed into the concrete morass, this once derelict area is the nerve center of the city’s entertaining south side. Even the daily second-hand book fair under the bridge attracts a parade of characters.

I reserved my last day for rediscovering my old neighborhood in Lambeth North. I resided in a joyless council apartment within spitting distance of Waterloo Station’s filth. But living on a road called Hercules with a view of Big Ben seemed pretty cool to me.

Around the corner, the Imperial War Museum was girdled by lovely gardens, just as I remembered it. Originally a hospital, the building became a museum in the 1930s to chronicle modern warfare. The galleries are packed with vivid, captivating exhibits, gadgets, and quirky objects.

But a war museum is a sobering place, particularly the Holocaust exhibition. Displays felt more educational than emotional. It’s filled with film clips and personal tales, belongings and death camp logbooks that lucidly spell out events.

I eased my mind by tripping down memory lane, Lower Marsh Road and The Cut, just to the east of Waterloo Train Station. I used to do my laundry and get my hair cut here. At more than a mile, it was London’s longest street market in the 19th century. Its bygone luster has been polished anew with trendy restaurants.

Nearby, the 135-meter high London Eye was staring at me. The world’s largest Ferris wheel was built as an emblem of the new century though it stands like a symbol of marriage between London’s north and south banks.

I boarded my pod for the ‘flight’, as the 30-minute ride is called (the wheel is owned by British Airways). Airborne, London spread out like a life-size map. At the top, my head grazed the sky. I surveyed London’s new skyline before settling on the steeple of Christ Church at the top of my former street. On touchdown, I was home sweet home.

Text & photos: Jono David

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Ways & means

Best of the rest (not mentioned in the article):
Oxo Tower, London Dungeon, Design Museum, Golden Hinde, Florence Nightingale Museum, Clink Prison, London Aquarium, and Dali’s Universe.

When to go
June through September brings the fairest skies and warmest temperatures, but very large numbers of tourists.

Visas
Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are generally allowed a six month tourist visa issued upon arrival. Generally, citizens of the EU may stay as long as they like.

On the web:
The Southwark Information Centre:
www.visitsouthwark.com/tourist-informationcentre
Pool of London: www.pooloflondon.co.uk
South Bank: www.southbanklondon.com.