London; the capital city of the Great Britain. As a frequent visitor to this part of the country, I thought I would describe an area about which I have dawdled many-a-time; Southwark (pronounced by those familiar with those parts as Suvuck).
Located on the South Bank of the River Thames, it was first mentioned as Sudweca in the Doomsday Book in 1086 (not sure if one can get hold of the Kindle edition), Southwark meaning “Surrey Folk’s Fort”, dates from the ninth century where it was formed as a defensive position by King Alfred, although the actual location was briefly occupied by the Romans a few centuries prior. These days the Borough defends against marauders & ruffians approaching from the City/Tower Hamlets in the north, Lambeth in the west, Lewisham in the east & Bromley in the south.
But when it comes to touristic eye-candy though, Southwark boasts possibly one of the most iconic tourist attractions in the country – no, not Wote Street Willy, but Tower Bridge. This Grade-I listed structure opened in 1894, is a 240 metre combined bascule/suspension bridge that spans the mighty River Thames. (BTW Bascules are the flaps (no schoolboy titters from the common riff-raff, if you please) that raise to allow tall vessels to pass underneath). I won’t waffle too much about the facts & figures as 1) that is what the font of all knowledge (Google) is for, 2) facts & figures tend to make my eyes glaze over & 3) I really would like to get on with my bimble.
From the southern end of Tower Bridge, I joined the aggregation & headed down the steps which are located slap-bang in the middle of the pavement on Tower Bridge (If you emerge at the Tower of London then I do believe that you is on the wrong side). Exiting onto a pavemented open expanse, I proceeded forward in a westly direction passing in front of a small open area that was surrounded by modern, glass-fronted buildings. One structure in particular caught my attention for it was shaped like a giant glass, erm, helmet. This bulbous building (City Hall), was designed by Sir Norman Foster & has been previously described as ‘an onion’, ‘a misshapen egg’, ‘a woodlouse’ & ‘a glass testicle’.
Skirting cautiously around ‘the gonad’, I spied (I say spied, in reality one could hardly miss it) before me a former Royal Navy relic from the second world war in the form of HMS Belfast – a Town-class, light cruiser warship. Having been fortunate enough to explore all the nooks & crannies on a previous jolly, I won’t witter-on too much except to say that she is well worth a visit, especially if you have inquisitive offspring.
Just the merest stones throw away from HMS Belfast is a former wharf turned shopping centre called Hay’s Galleria, which besides containing all the typical opulence associated with a galleria, also houses a rather impressive centrepiece, known as ‘The Navigators’. This wonderful kinetic (movable to my military brethren) sculpture, made by the sculptor David Kemp in 1986, pays homage to the bygone Victorian era combining ‘gothic fantasy, sea monsters, man & machine’. Jolly clever if you ask me & totally steampunk long before the word steampunk was even conceived by some check-shirted, bearded, tattooed, craft-ale drinking twentysomething (I do hope I haven’t gone overboard with the stereotyping..)
Back on the rivers edge, I followed the concourse further upstream venturing in front, or possibly behind London Bridge Hospital, passing under London Bridge, which thankfully at that time, wasn’t falling down. A hundred or so metres beyond this I happened upon a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hinde (not The Golden Behinde as my son named it), & like a nimble-toed ninja I tip-toed around the crowds who were busily observing crows-nests, masts & rigging, to dally-off into Clink Street. Now if you are not from round these here parts, ‘The Clink’ is a generic term for an establishment where you would detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. “ee’s arf to the clink guv’na” as that famous Londoner Dick van Dyke would say. But located below the swinging gibbet (complete with skeletal remains), in the depths of Clink Street is the remnants of the real, genuine, original ‘Clink’ – which is now a museum. Diminutive but darned interesting if you intend to visit.
Oh, by the way, just before the Clink museum is Winchester Palace, or rather the ruins of it. This former medieval townhouse of the Bishops of Winchester was rediscovered in the 19th century following a fire.
Onwards & passing under the railway arches, I headed in a starboard direction passing some modern eateries & a nice looking pub musing to myself what the 15th century Clink gaolers would of preferred to eat – “Oi Norm, what ya fancy for tea tonight – Wagamama’s or Nando’s?”
Once again following the river, I passed through the underpass of Southwark Bridge. But withstanding the usual malodourous tones associated with such places, I paused momentarily to observe the slate artworks inscribed with scenes & words discussing the ‘frost fair‘ – periods in history when the River Thames froze over & much fun & merriment was had as a result. Given the current state of the planet I am not sure that London will witness another Frost Fair anytime soon though.
The next place of interest on the waters edge was The Globe theatre – the circular building made famous by William Shakespeare. Being not of a thespian nature I stood, I observed & I then skedaddled onwards, although something of interest did catch my eye just beyond; Cardinal Cap Alley – the entrance to a former house of ill-repute, so named after the headwear that the Bishop of Winchester adorned after he was cardinalized. (Yes, cardinalized is an actual word as I have just Googled it & I can neither confirm nor deny whether the recently appointed cardinal actually frequented the said knocking shop).
By this time I was now in need of some liquid refreshment & waning enthusiasm due to the crowds, so like a dog with a scent, I made haste past the former power-station turned trendy Tate Modern art place & metallic Millennium footbridge (forever remembered as the ‘wibbly-wobbly bridge’ due its pendulous swinging movement when it was first constructed), towards the Founders Arms public house.
From the boozer, I sallied my way westwards once again along The Queens Walk passing the iconic Blackfriars bridge & the pillared remnants of the not-so-iconic Blackfriars Railway Bridge. On a slightly macabre note, it was under this bridge that in June 1982 that a chap by the name of Roberto Calvi was found hanging from one of the span arches, with $14’000 of different denominations in his pockets, complete with 5 bricks. Apparently Mr Calvi had somehow managed to upset his former employers….
Just a stone’s throw beyond Blackfriars, I spied the infamous (or possibly famous) former site of the OXO company, famous (or possibly infamous) for their foiled beef stock cubes (“Ah Mr Beef-Stock-Cube, you have been foiled once again….”). Apparently the O-X-O design on the tower is actually cleverly designed windows, purposely incorporated to bypass the skyline advertising laws of the 1920’s. These days the building & surrounding area has been transformed by the Coin Street Community Builders to make it a jolly nice place to visit (& live I would imagine).
My next POI was the Royal National Theatre, abbreviated as the National Theatre, which is further abbreviated as the NT. Quoted as being “one of the seminal works of British Modernism” the NT, National Theatre, or even the Royal National Theatre is a masterpiece made of concrete, although not to my own personal taste. A little further on, around the lower aspects of Waterloo Bridge, I walked past the Southbank Skatepark, whereby local youths practiced their prowess on four-tiny wheels, amidst a subtle & delicate backdrop of illuminating street-art, complete with the not-so-subtle & delicate aroma of marijuana. I carried on, passing a comment to a spliff-smoking teenager that it was ‘totally rad man’. He ignored me in a totally awesome kind of way.
By this time, I must say that I had developed a bladder the size of airship (due to lunchtime rehydration activities), so I made a bee-line for a coffee shop in the arcade below Festival Hall. I always think that if one has to use the facilities of an establishment, then it is only good manners to purchase something as a way of showing gratitude, so with the tiniest pack of almonds in my clutches, I paid my dues & wandered out on the seated concourse once again.
Suddenly, out of nowhere my brain started to talk to me: “I say old chap look over there, it is one of those places that sells BOOKS. Why not have a look? You always need another book. What about a map? You really need a map.” And so I gave in to my inner voices & spent the next half an hour looking through the travel book section & then the next half an hour sat outside the coffee shop, drinking tea & reading the intro to my newly purchased book & also admiring the topography of South Wales.
By this time, I was getting bored with the constant zig-zagging about the tourists (yes, I know theoretically I was also a tourist, but as with most British, we never consider ourselves to be tourists, merely locals who have extended beyond the perimeters of their own habitats), & so I made for the nearest tube station. For those who have never experienced the London underground after 4pm on a week-day, I would say it is like the Pamplona bull-run just without the bulls – it is fecking bedlam. Thankfully, I only had two erratic stops on the Jubilee Line until I was at London Bridge Station.
After riding the massive escalators up to ground level, I bore right & followed signs to the main London Bridge Station, passing through a corridor of impressive brick-built railway arches which have been turned into small shops. Out in the expanse of the modern, highly polished concourse, I exited & found myself suddenly at the base of The Shard – a monumental great erection that will look lovely when it is finally finished.
It was at this precise moment, that I would like to of told you about how to I wandered to & around Borough Market, sampling all manner of edible & potable delicacies, but after spending so long in the Southbank bookshop/coffeeshop it was now closed. So instead of heading west past Guy’s Hospital, I turned south-east & wandered along St Thomas Street past the ‘eclectic mix of drinks, food, flea market & art’ that is the Vinegar Yard (so named after the famous vinegar manufacturer located in the area) finally heading south-ish onto Bermondey Street. This hidden gem is full of small eateries & pubs & arty shops – it is also home to the Fashion & Textile Museum if you are interested in that kind of thing. And it is here, as I sit outside The Garrison public house in the evening London sunshine that I bade my Southwark dawdle au-revoir.