On previous trips to London, I have stayed in The City, Kensington/Chelsea and Kings Cross. I was intrigued when my friend told me he had found a flat in Southwark on the South Bank of the Thames. My previous exploration of the South Bank had been limited to boat tours and visits to key tourist destinations along the river’s edge. This would give me the opportunity to explore this district of the city more deeply.
The South Bank is dominated by several key London landmarks and stretches several kilometers downstream from Westminster to Tower Bridge. Diagonal to Parliament on the upstream end is the London Eye, a giant Ferris Wheel which looks much like a giant bicycle tire. Reaching a maximum height of 135 meters, an entire rotation takes approximately 30 minutes with annual ridership of 3.5 million per year.
The next prominent building of note is the OXO Tower, a mixed-use complex containing shops, apartments and restaurants and once a production site for OXO bouillon cubes. To maintain its historical heritage, London has historically prevented advertising along the Thames waterfront. OXO skirted these bylaws by incorporating windows in the tower to spell the name OXO. Ironically, our apartment was situated immediately behind the OXO Tower.
The OXO Tower is the western boundary of a district known as Bankside. Dominating Bankside is Tate Modern, a former power plant converted into one of the best modern art museums in the world. Although I am not a huge fan of modern art, I highly recommend a visit as the museum is so large as to offer something to everyone. As with most London museums, it is free so there is little to lose should you find your interest waning. The museum is situated directly across from St Paul’s Cathederal with direct access across the pedestrian-only Millenium Bridge.
Completely dwarfed by Tate Modern is the famous Globe Theatre, known for premiering most of William Shakespeare’s works. Constructed in 1599, the building burned in 1613 as a result of a cannon misfiring during a performance of Henry VIII. Rebuilt the following year, the theatre was shut down by the Puritans and dismantled in 1644.
In 1997, a group spearheaded by Americans opened a replica of the theatre close to the site of the original Globe. Today, the organization puts on works by Shakespeare throughout the summer months as well as sends out troupes around the world, including “As You Like It” this summer at Kronborg Castle here in Denmark. For those looking for tickets, it is possible to purchase “Groundling” tickets the day of the play for only a few pounds. These standing-only tickets were once the only ones poor people could afford but today provide an intimate Shakespeare experience.
The rest of the South Bank down to Tower Bridge is primarily dominated by office buildings and shopping galleries with Hays Gallery being the most prominent. Immediately offshore of Hays is the HMS Belfast, a WWII cruiser permanently moored in the Thames. Although I had visited it previously, we were informed that the ship was closed as a portion of the gangway connecting the ship to shore had collapsed the previous fall and was still under reconstruction.
Between the Globe and Hays Gallery is a treasure-trove of London history and culture. Southwark Cathedral dates back over 1,000 years, with records showing it was an Augustinian prior as early as 1106. Although largely rebuilt, it is possible to see remnants of these earlier structures.
Immediately south of the cathedral is Borough Market, situated immediately under the south access to London Bridge. In contrast to the Portobello or Camden Market, the Borough Market is a pure food market. This was a new discovery for me and I spent a half-hour meandering the countless stalls and tasting the numerous samples on offer.
By far the most prominent feature of the South Bank skyline is the Shard, a new highrise towering over central London. It was fascinating watching workers perched high above the city. Another more unique feature is the rounded form of London City Hall, situated in the shadow of London Bridge and home to “Boris”, the charismatic, self deprecating mayor of London.
In addition to the usual tourist destinations, we were able to explore the local neighbourhood more closely, including supermarkets and resturants. One highlight was dinner out at the Anchor and Hope, a well-known gastropub in the heart of Southwark. After having gotten used to the extravagent cost of dining out in Copenhagen, there is a little less sticker shock eating out in London, although I’m not sure my Canadian friend could say the same…