Last week’s visit to London forced me to revise my negative preconceptions about that city. Since my first visit in 1985, I’ve avoided London, only passing through for a night or two on the way to somewhere else.
And so during a recent long walk along in Southwark, I experienced a travel epiphany, a moment of sheer delight in the surrounding environment. Walking along the south bank of the Thames, from Westminster Bridge to the Tate Modern, familiar landmarks, symbols of power and Britishness came into relief: Big Ben, Westminster, St Paul’s and London Bridge rose up into the dreary slated sky, a theme park view of London’s icons seen from a safe distance, or perhaps like an old hand coloured etching from times past.
We descended the steps from the bridge to the river and walked beyond the amusements of South Bank, busy with tourists eager to experience the theatrical world of dungeons, petty thieves and London’s colourful past. Further along, passed McDonald’s, fish and chipperies and the gigantic ferris wheel, the promenade turns into a series of lanes and dark underground passes, bridge tunnels, old churches, remnants of mediaeval lanes, parks, gothic churches interspersed with new modern housing developments.
The walk has evolved over the last 30 years as this southern bank has become revitalised and gentrified. Once home to London’s poor, prostitutes and thieves, it retains some of that appealing grunge.
Further along looms the striking building dedicated to Modern Art, the Tate Modern. A monolithic brick structure, Mussolini- esque and unadorned, the Tate Modern was once an electric company. Now beautifully restored, the building is a fitting space for the art it houses.
After a few hours in the Tate, the nearby Borough market revealed its cosmopolitan culinary charms. Very busy on a full market day, the market is full of youthful vitality. French cheeses and saucissons, moules mariniere, calamari fritti, Malaysian goat curry, dishes from regional India, Seafood Paella and borek, and the very British pork pie shop, compete for the lunchtime pound. A world of food temptation and well worth a visit.
At the start of this journey, the tide of the Thames was out. By the time we left, it was lapping forcefully at the sides of the banks. As we headed back to the North, I felt pleased about the day. But, like the tide, the jury is out. I think my view of London will always fluctuate. It will depend on the day, the company and the walk taken.
Good songs for the journey.
Werewolves of London. Warren Zevon
I’m in London Still The Waifs
London Calling. The Clash