A group of young adults have spread out a blanket on a patch of lawn near London’s Tate Modern Museum and are suntanning, several couples are enjoying picnic lunches, a street performer is playing a guitar nearby and countless other people are meandering along the walkway near the river.
On a sunny day, there is no better place in Britain than London’s Southbank.
Stretching along the southern side of the River Thames from Westminster Bridge to the Tate Modern Museum, the Southbank and the Southwark (Suth-uck) area of London that surrounds it has evolved from a seedy neighbourhood in the 18th century to a rundown 20th century warehouse district to a modern-day hotspot filled with unique architecture and lively culture.
As my brother and I walk around this district, I can still see a few signs of its seedy past. The brothels and rollicking pubs that filled the area in the 1700s are long gone, but the original Clink Prison is still here in the form of an unusual museum that serves as a reminder that the phrase “getting thrown in The Clink” once meant something more.
The rebuilt Globe Theatre is another time warp back to Shakespearean times. The Bard spent plenty of time in Southwark since the Globe served as the venue for which he wrote many of his plays.
To some austere Londoners, theatre was a pleasure that belonged on the south side of the river with the brothels.
Though there are some signs of Southwark’s seedy history, as we wander around I can find little evidence of its more recent past as a rundown warehouse district.
All around are indicators that London’s original entertainment area is back on track and bustling with activity.
We wander past Southwark Cathedral, which is a beautiful 13th century stone building with an interesting history.
The church was made a cathedral in the early 1900s, but prior to that it served as the neighbourhood church of Southwark.
It was William Shakespeare’s church when he was working and living in London and it was the site of John Harvard’s baptism — before he moved to America, made his fortune and founded Harvard University.
Further along, we step inside the lively Borough Market, wandering in and out of food stalls — sampling as we go. Borough Market is one of the oldest and largest food markets in London and if you visit on a weekend, it can be difficult to move around. Since we are here on a Tuesday, it is a little less crowded and easier to navigate.
Next we wander past The Golden Hinde, a life-sized replica of the 16th century warship that Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the globe between 1577 and 1580. While captaining this ship, Drake was awarded a knighthood and became a hero to the English. To the Spanish, he will always be remembered as one of history’s most notorious pirates.
Once we reach the riverfront walkway, we come across the Globe Theatre and see a long queue of people waiting in line to purchase tickets. This reconstructed theatre offers tours and performances dedicated to “the promotion of international understanding of Shakespeare in performance.” We don’t take the time to go inside, but I promise myself that I will watch a performance there some day.
Our next stop is Tate Modern, which holds the national collection of British art from 1500 to present as well as international modern and contemporary art. The museum charges admission for its special exhibits, but visitors can view the rest of the galleries and the permanent collection for free. London is an expensive city to visit, but exploring its national museums is one of the best free activities you can find.
Wandering through the galleries and viewing the vast collection of modern and contemporary art helps us to work up an appetite, so we head to the top floor for lunch with a view. The service is slow and the food is a bit expensive for a museum cafeteria, but it is delicious when it finally arrives and we enjoy amazing views of the other side of the river while we wait.
After lunch, we continue our exploration of the bankside walkway and pass the Southbank Skate Park. There’s a lot happening on the south side of the river these days and there have been proposals to put shops in the space presently occupied by the skate park. Since it has been around for more than 40 years, there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the proposal.
By the time we make it to the Southbank book market under the Waterloo Bridge, we realize that we are out of time and need to make our way back to the London Underground, so I can make it to the airport in time for a flight.
As I am sitting on the tube taking the ride back to Heathrow, I realize that over the course of several hours, we barely managed to scratch the surface of what there is to see and do on London’s Southbank. The list of major sites we didn’t have time to see include the National Theatre, the Old Vic Theatre, Hayward Gallery, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, the British Film Institute and the London Eye.
In addition to the big sites we missed, there are plenty of great little shops and restaurants along the river’s edge that we have yet to explore. There is so much to see and do on the south side of the river that it’s going to take at least one more trip to take it all in.
Fortunately, Southbank is a place where I won’t mind returning — especially on a sunny day.
If you go
• You can get to the Southbank area of London quite easily and inexpensively from Heathrow Airport using the London Underground. You’ll want to get off at the Waterloo station. If you have a lengthy layover in London, as I did, consider using the bag stowing service in the third terminal and popping into the city on the tube.
• For more information on visiting London or the Southbank area, check out the city’s official tourism website at www.visitlondon.com. Another great website with information specific to the Southbank area is www.southbanklondon.com.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have an interesting travel story you would like to share, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.