Tuesday, 10 November 2009

London South Central: Bermondsey Street and the South Bank

This is an article I wrote a few years ago for World Language Consultants Ltd, a language school in Bermondsey Street in South London. Some of the facts have changed (e.g. the Eurostar train terminal that connects Britain to the Continent is now at St Pancras), but most of the places referred to are the same. If you plan to visit the capital it might be a good idea to check some of the tourist websites (such as visitlondon.com) that contain current information on visiting times and prices, etc.

Exploring London South Central
Whether you live in London or are just visiting, you'll find there's plenty to see and do in London South Central. Explore the area's rich history and culture, hunt for bargains in its arcades and markets, and chill out at some of the trendiest cafés and bars in the capital.

London South What ?
London South Central is the new name for one of London's oldest districts. It includes Vauxhall, Waterloo, London Bridge, Bankside and Elephant & Castle. Traditionally, the area has always been seen as charming but dodgy. (In Shakespeare's day the South Bank was as famous for its brothels as its theatres). And in more recent times, taxi drivers have refused to go "south of the river" at night.

But all that is about to change. South London has been smartening up its act, and is attracting a new generation of artisans and professionals who have transformed some of its most run-down areas into thriving local economies. While the attractions of the South Bank are a must for visitors to the capital, there's also plenty to discover in some of the smaller streets tucked away behind the waterfront.

How to get there
The Eurostar terminal at Waterloo [now at St Pancras - and featuring the longest champagne bar in Europe] has brought the area within easy reach of the Continent, and there is also a good rail service to London Bridge and Waterloo stations if just you're coming in to town for the day. If you're already in London, hop on the tube (Jubilee and Northern Line trains stop at London Bridge, while Waterloo connects with the Jubilee, Northern and Bakerloo Line as well.) There are also plenty of buses, and there's even a river bus service, if you really want to arrive in style.

What to see
Go for a spin on the London Eye for a breathtaking bird's-eye view of the capital, and marvel at Sir Norman Foster's London Assembly building near Tower Bridge. Check out Tate Modern art gallery (formerly Bankside power station), Shakespeare's Globe and the Millennium Bridge. Relax in the precincts of Southwark Cathedral, then stroll down to Hay's Galleria and Gabriel's Wharf where you can shop and take in the view from one of the many waterside cafés or bars.

Step back in time
The Thames has always been London's gateway to the wider world, and you don't need to look far to discover Britain's maritime history. Visit Sir Francis Drake's reconstructed ship, The Golden Hinde, at St Mary Overie Dock, or explore HMS Belfast, which played a leading part in the Normandy Landings.

Shakespeare's Globe, a faithful reconstruction of the original theatre, stages open-air plays (take an umbrella just in case) and has a fascinating permanent exhibition about the building in Elizabethan times. To see the darker side of London's history, descend into the South Bank's medieval Clink prison (which is where the expression comes from). And if that's not grisly enough, the London Dungeons in Tooley Street will bring you face to face with the Black Death and Jack the Ripper. (Stick close to the guide, and don't wander off on your own, if you want to make it to the gift shop!)

Make a scene
Playing host to both the Royal National Theatre and the Globe, the South Bank is rightly regarded as the home of drama in London, with the West End having long ago given up any claims to that title. Plays are staged throughout the summer in The Scoop, a modern amphitheatre next to the London Assembly. Head for the Old Vic, where you can currently catch Kevin Spacey's production of Cloaca (until 11 December).

Make it new
If you're looking for Old Masters, you won't find them on the South Bank. (Try the National Gallery, or catch the regular boat service that takes gallery-goers from Tate Modern to Tate Britain). Tate Modern hosts installations and exhibits outsize sculpture in the massive Turbine Hall. It also has cafés, a superb restaurant and a well-stocked bookshop. Further down the South Bank, you'll find the Saatchi Gallery, which boasts Damien Hirst's shark and Tracey Emin's infamous unmade bed. The Hayward Gallery, behind the Royal National Theatre, has a fascinating exhibition, Eyes, Lies & Illusions (until 3 January 2005) which features optical illusions, magic lanterns and all sorts of visual trickery. And if that's not enough, why not pop into the Salvador Dali exhibition in County Hall. Or just enjoy the surrealist statues outside, including Space Elephant (an elephant with spider legs carrying an obelisk on its back.)

Handbags and Glad-rags
While most of London South Central's tourist hot-spots are along the river, there are also some great places to discover away from the South Bank. But Bermondsey Street must surely be the hottest spot of all. Once a desolate wasteland of derelict factories and disused warehouses, it's now home to design studios (including Kurt Geiger), loft apartments and some great restaurants.

Dominating Bermondsey Street is Zandra Rhodes's Fashion and Textile Museum. This striking building, a former warehouse painted bright orange, is also the home of the shocking-pink-haired designer, who lives in the penthouse (complete with palm trees).

Bermondsey Street's latest addition is World Language Consultants Ltd, one of London's longest-established business language schools, which specialises in teaching English and foreign languages to professionals. WLC is located directly opposite the Fashion and Textile Museum, adding a complementary splash of colour to the other side of the street with its distinctive blue door.

Food for thought
London South Central has more than its fair share of great restaurants and cafés.Bermondsey street boasts several superior eateries, including the Delfina Studio Café, the Bermondsey Kitchen and The Garrison, a gastropub with its own cinema in the basement. Other places to check out are Terence Conran's Blue Print restaurant and the Oxo Tower, which has stunning panoramic views. Vinopolis, the museum and temple to the god of wine rolled into one, has an excellent restaurant (with, needless to say, an outstanding wine-list). And fans of Bridget Jones will recognise Borough Market, even if they have yet to sample the unbelievably fresh produce from its specialist gourmet stalls, selling everything from game to white truffle oil.

What makes London South Central exciting and distinctive is its mix of the historical with the ultra-modern: you can find them side by side in its architecture its culture, and its diverse communities of long-established residents and those who have discovered more recently the charms of this unique area.

© Robert Dennis 2004

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