London: A Walk Along the South Bank
January 1, 1970
by Josephine Mizen
So I thought I’d start my travel blog writing about somewhere I actually know very well – London, the capital of the United Kingdom. Having grown up just outside London, South Bank, at just five minutes’ walk from London’s Waterloo station where my train always pulled into, was my first port of call for a spot of lunch with friends or an evening walk with my parents. This short but intriguing walk along a wide, pedestrian avenue on the River Thames’s south bank will take you from the London Eye and Westminster to Tower Bridge on the eastern tip of Central London. Whilst the area is far from being a hidden gem, on a summer’s afternoon it is unquestionably one of the liveliest, most vibrant spots in London – and, unless you decide to stop in one of the area’s numerous bars or restaurants, a pleasant walk can be completely free!
The London Eye is where South Bank begins. Now, it’s your decision whether you want to go on the London Eye or not. I was five years old the first time I went up there, and I absolutely loved it. But honestly, if you’re only in London for a few days, there are other high places you can go up to with equally nice views – and they’re also much cheaper and don’t involve hour-long queues.
Behind the London Eye is Jubilee Gardens. If you’ve brought a packed lunch with you, then a little grass verge in the Gardens is the perfect place to eat it. And if you’re travelling with children, I can also say that Jubilee Gardens has one of London’s most exciting looking children’s playgrounds.
The Southbank Centre and the National Theatre
Heading east from the London Eye, the famous sights just don’t stop coming. With Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament almost opposite the famous wheel, you perhaps won’t find anything more splendid, but if culture is your thing, then the Southbank Centre – a popular location for talks, art exhibitions and music – and the National Theatre are the next two buildings to come up on your right – although personally I don’t think their brutalist concrete architecture is any match for the golden grandeur of Big Ben. In between the two buildings, you’ll pass under Waterloo Bridge – another nondescript concrete structure. What’s far more entertaining is the second-hand book stall that’s taken up almost permanent residence under the bridge, where you can find numerous old books for very little money. Especially in the summer, temporary exhibitions or quirky installations can often be found in front of the National Theatre – perhaps you’ll find modern art sculptures, brightly coloured benches or even a sandpit for the children; the paved area in front of the theatre never disappoints. Lining the wide, tree-lined pathway are also endless restaurants, bars and cafes, so that you’re never short of a place to perch with a cold drink (if you can afford the somewhat inflated prices, that is…).
Looking across the river, you have the quiet grandeur of Victoria Embankment – or, the north bank of the River Thames, with the green-domed, white-pillared Somerset House taking centre stage, and the world-renowned, though not especially aesthetically pleasing, King’s College London, part of the University of London, standing next to it.
Gabriel’s Wharf and the OXO Tower
South Bank becomes quieter as you move further from the London Eye, but never loses its vibrancy. Next up comes Gabriel’s Wharf – a quirky inlet full of restaurants and minuscule art galleries, all housed in quaint buildings that resemble fishermen’s cottages – could anything be more different from the sleek modernism of the London Eye or the concrete brutalism of the theatre? Unless you’re travelling to London with a fairly hefty budget, though, Gabriel’s Wharf is probably more for looking than for buying, and the same goes for the art shops housed in the next building along – the OXO Tower – though a trip up to the top floor in the lift is free of charge and gives some delightful panoramic views of the area. Here the riverside path becomes narrower, quieter and lined with smart apartments and Victorian-style lampposts.
The Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre
Next you’ll pass under Blackfriars Bridge, its tiled walkway adorned with drawings of how London used to look. After that, the path becomes narrower still until you get passed Blackfriars train station, which was renovated only recently (it never looked so sleek when I was younger!). The path then widens once again and, as you draw closer to the Tate Modern art gallery, is regularly adorned with street performers and musicians, providing a lively and creative atmosphere in the shadow of the imposing power-station-turned-art-gallery.
For the literature buffs, the next building coming up is Shakespeare’s legendary Globe Theatre – or, at least, the reconstruction of it. Tours of the historical building operate daily, and tickets to see shows in the open air auditorium can be just £5 – the catch is, of course, that you have to stand. (I did it once for Macbeth…as fantastic as the play may have been, a small cushioned seat would have been dearly welcomed after two-and-a-half hours!) In stark contrast to the Globe, the modern, curving Millennium Bridge provides a footpath across the river – and is worth a walk onto even if only to get the picture-perfect view of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London’s famous domed church, that you can see from up there.
As you pass the Globe, South Bank takes on a modernist feel, with chick apartments to the right and the glassy skyscrapers of the City of London – London’s financial heart – on the other side of the river. Nevertheless, the moment you pass under Southwark Bridge, things once again take a turn for the old-fashioned. With traditional pubs and modern restaurants perfectly blended in with the brick architecture of the old railway bridge, food lovers and photography lovers alike will be spoilt for choice.
Clink Street, immediately on the other side of the railway bridge, is a particularly special street. Old, cramped and featuring a rather sinister looking Prison Museum (I’ve never been brave enough to go inside!), Clink Street plunges unknowing tourists straight back into the Victorian era – think Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. At the end of Clink Street, things get older still, with a richly decorated naval ship, depicting London’s naval heritage, proudly on display.
London Bridge and Hay’s Galleria
At this point, the path departs from the river a bit to wind in between some offices, but tucked away along this route is also Southwark Cathedral – and a small detour can also be made to visit the bottom of the Shard; Western Europe’s tallest building. After you pass under London Bridge, however, you’re back to the riverside, passing alongside fancy offices, bustling squares and smart restaurants, with the arty Hay’s Galleria eventually coming up to your right, its impressive metal and glass ceiling dominating the skyline. The former battleship, HMS Belfast, also looms, grey and imposing, to your left, and can sometimes be boarded by members of the public.
City Hall and the Tower of London
As the buildings grow taller, swankier and glassier, you know you’re approaching City Hall. Walking up to it is like walking through a modernist utopia – dark glass and silver steel loom on all sides, and the shiny structures conceal underground gyms and swimming pools, built for London’s business elite. While City Hall itself – a modern structure that rather resembles a blob – is not the area’s most impressive building, Tower Bridge, the grand gateway into Central London, most definitely is, and the eerily attractive Tower of London, home to countless prisoners, executions and Britain’s most prized treasures before it became the museum that it is today, is visible on the far side of the river. You’ve reached the end of the walk – now time to head back to one of those posh bars you just walked past and get a well-deserved drink!