North Bank Show

Mesmerising detail

In my imaginatively titled blog Show Bank Show I described my attraction to London’s celebrated South Bank, from Vauxhall to Waterloo and beyond. It occurred to me that you never hear anything about the North Bank and so, in another leap of originality, I hope to persuade you that the unfashionable side of the Thames is worth a little of anybody’s time.

On this unseasonally tropical September Friday I chose Lambeth Bridge as my starting point purely because this is the point from which I expected things to get interesting. I have always found Victoria Tower Gardens to be a peaceful haven away from the madness of Central London and today is no different. With a backdrop of Westminster’s Victoria Tower I see a handful of joggers, the odd morning sun worshiper, kids playing together, a man dressed in a white suit and white bowler hat urinating against a tree – a familiar and comforting snapshot of the England we know and love.

Sauron's tower
The tower of Sauron

I hadn’t previously taken a close look around this park so the Buxton Monument – a fabulously ornate memorial to the end of the slave trade – was new to me. The ancient ensemble of parliamentary buildings forces the walker away from the riverside at this point and over to Parliament Square, which is fine for me as there is always some show to enjoy here. Except today there are no protests or film crews as Parliament has been prorogued by the disgraced and incarcerated Boris Johnson (at the time of writing he’s still PM can you believe).

Keep off the grass. Man.
Keep off the grass. Man.

With so much recent activism outside parliament the square is cordened off in order to allow the incessantly trampled grass to recover. A casualty of democracy. The towering stone mass of Westminster is all but obscured by scaffolding as exorbitantly expensive renovations take place. This could all have been avoided if Guy Fawkes had been better at project management.

With little architecture to point the camera at a scattering of tourists are gravitating towards the various Statues that surround the square.

Churchill - larger then life
Churchill – larger then life

I resume my walk heading back towards Westminster Bridge. A conglomeration of tourist tat stalls are engulfed by visitors this morning. Crudely molded metal models of Big Ben, Queen masks, postcards of Buckingham Palace and much worse will soon be shuffled off to the darkest corners of the homes of friends and family of today’s visitors.

Westminster Bridge, thankfully built to a higher standard than the models
Westminster Bridge, thankfully built to a higher standard than the models

The lamest Darth Vader impersonator stands precariously atop a speaker pumping out Star Wars music while people take photos and chip in with a few coins. Nobody appears to take the slightest interest in the kick-ass statue of Boudicca above. Welcome to London.

Feel the force
Feel the force

Also attracting no attention is an adjacent line of cycle taxis. This is hardly a suprise when you see their rates. A couple of fares and their day has been a success.

The waiting game
The waiting game

The commotion soon fizzles out as I head east along the Victoria Embankment. Bazalgette’s mammoth 19th century construction project created a much needed sewage system upgrade and new transport links – robust victorian architecture that has stood the test of time. This fascinating Museum Of London piece describes the scale and ambition of Bazalgette’s work – a truly big job.

A couple of suits are speaking to camera outside New Scotland Yard. It’s less dramatic than it looks in TV crime thrillers. I’m disappointed that the famous rotating New Scotland Yard sign is not moving. Perhaps justice does take a day off. Here’s a YouTube video of it rotating, which shows that some people have too much time on their hands.

The next substantial building is home to the Ministry of Defence. A simple garden is decorated with statues remembering various military campaigns and characters. It would be easy to miss this space because the dramatic riverside memorial to those lost in the Battle of Britain inevitably draws your attention.

So many stories
So many stories

London and the Thames corridor particularly are dotted with numerous statues and memorials but few can be so effective in telling a story.

Mesmerising detail
Mesmerising detail

I pause to sit on one of the benches that look out across the Thames. The river is busy today with pleasure cruises, passenger ferries and disconcertingly massive waste barges being towed out to some disposal point beyond the city. The London Eye rotates imperceptibly and swarms of people enjoy the full South Bank sun. It’s much quieter here on the North Bank and there is merciful shade from trees along the embankment.

Under the gaze of the eye
Under the gaze of the eye

Beyond this point there are few uninterrupted views across the river due to piers and moored boats, which is fine because I’m heading into Whitechapel Gardens – a favourite place of mine. I stumbled upon this by accident while working in the city and today it is just as I remember it.

This lunchtime it is an oasis of calm. The colourful planting in these well maintained gardens is a delight.

And breathe...
And breathe…

Heading beneath Hungerford Bridge I emerge outside the entrance to Embankment tube station which looks unexpectedly quaint and as pretty as any tube station could reasonably aspire to be.

Is this really central London?
Is this really central London?

The station adjoins yet another green space – Victoria Embankment Gardens. More colourful borders and numerous statues (I’m a bit statued out now) attract the lunchtime office crowd and this gathering look disinclined to return to work for the afternoon. At least productivity levels are going to be zero if they do.

This is nice
This is nice

The hypnotic pitter patter of a cooling fountain completes the illusion that I am at some rural retreat a world away from central London. Only my need for refreshment forces me to leave. Seriously, where are all these people buying their lunches?

Can I just stay here?
Can I just stay here?

Somerset House is next up on the left. They operate an ice skating rink in the winter months but I have never visited. Temple tube station probably only serves office workers during the week. I had hoped to check out Temple Gardens which look lush and inviting on Google Maps but it turns out that one can only gain admittance by getting a law degree and an internship at the judiciary. I am reduced to glancing through the railings at smart law firm employees relaxing on the grass, ties loosened a touch in concession to the heat. This is where my North Bank oddessy ends. The river front east of here becomes polluted and industrial for some distance until Tower Bridge.

Royal Courts Of Justice - the least popular bar in town this afternoon
Royal Courts Of Justice – the least popular bar in town this afternoon

Instead I head uphill towards the Royal Courts Of Justice on Fleet Street where an array of wine bars already lubricates an exodus of legal types as they conduct their final “meetings” of the week.

Postscript…

It’s the next day. Against my better judgement I find myself on the sunny South Bank jostling through a tide of corpulent sharp elbowed tourists. To think I could have been lying in the cool grass of Whitechapel Gardens listening to the cricket. There’s a time for everything.

Tourist Attraction

Given the weighty number of famous attractions in London and the sheer volume of information telling us where to go and what to see you might be forgiven for thinking no major spectacle could fly under the collective what’s-on radar of the city. Not so.

There’s a constantly evolving show to be witnessed 52 weeks a year all over the city. I am of course referring to the 18+ million tourists who flock in from around the globe and bring the place alive.


As my 6 months working in London comes to an end I have given the tourist question some thought. Why do they come? What do they enjoy? Why aren’t Londoners having this much fun? Duh, forget that last question…

Different point of view
Different point of view

There is no better place to start off than Westminster where a seething mass of people swarm around the landmarks like MPs around an expense claim form. It’s so busy that I’m immediately suspicious of a solitary photographer – what has he seen that nobody else has?

When will I be famous?
When will I be famous?

Standing with my back turned on Westminster Abbey to face a wall of snappers I wonder if this is what it feels like to be famous. Perhaps I will be soon as holidaymakers share their vacation pictures and wonder why I had to intrude on their field of view. They may even mistake me for somebody famous – Martin Freeman, Hugh Laurie, Beaker off the muppets…

 

Needless to say almost everybody is carrying at least one camera whether it’s a DSLR, bridge camera, compact, phone or tablet and it is their set pieces that unfailingly amuse me…

Mandela - a giant of a man
Mandela – a giant of a man

A statue of Mandela is one of several notable historic figures lining Parliament Square. Nelson stands hands out embracing peace, or perhaps he’s just trying to strangle Big Ben. It’s only natural that a group line up below to do the same.

It's the law
It’s the law

I love witnessing scenes that, despite their clichéd predictability, are genuine and heart warming for those concerned.

Phone Box - looks better than it smells...
Phone Box – looks better than it smells…

To counter the predictable there is always something unexpected to see. A swanky photo shoot looks destined to make the pages of some Japanese wedding magazine. Will a Tokyo bride set her heart on a London ceremony?

Guessing he's a Pole
Guessing he’s a Pole

No sooner have they moved on then a selfie opportunity arises for somebody else. A camera pole makes perfect sense for the solo traveller. We don’t always realise how strong the UK brand is and few icons set the visiting heart aflutter more than a good old red phone box. Alternatively it’s not hard to spot people pretending to post a letter or board a double decker bus as a friend or relative lines them up in the viewfinder.

Stay calm and don't buy anything
Stay calm and don’t buy anything

Needless to say this is fertile ground for merchants of tourist tat. Who seriously buys the “I [heart] London” T-shirts for themselves? Who actually wears the plastic bobby’s helmets? Mind you at £2 I’m tempted myself.

Pizza delivery for number 10
Pizza delivery for number 10

It appears that the tourists are having too much fun elsewhere to get sucked into buying novelty nonsense. Downing Street is portrayed in a sober light on the TV news but right now it’s all smiles as PCs take it in turns to pose for photos.

Dad gets to play horse
Dad gets to play horse

Smiles are strictly forbidden at Horse Guard’s a short stroll further along Whitehall but that doesn’t stop families queuing up to take photos alongside an impassive cavalryman. I have always felt a pang of sympathy for the young men who have to stand for hours in full regalia in all weather while they are photographed. Are they laughing inside at some of the antics or are they a pin drop away from creating a diplomatic incident with their bayonet…

The Griswold family vacation
The Griswold family vacation

Trafalgar Square is a tourist mecca so if you are into street photography this is a turkey shoot. An American family takes a break. The boys are hyper, mom has stopped to take bearings (again) and dad has this resigned look that says “I’m keeping out of this”.

School's out
School’s out

You see lots of groups here. What memories will members of this school party take home with them? Whether it is the treasures of the National Gallery (as envisioned by parents and teachers) or an induction to the “unique” fish and chips experience I like to think their adventure will live long in the mind.

Don't make it angry
Don’t make it angry

With so much of the world now on the tourist map I suspect that Britain still offers something a little different to the seasoned traveller. Where else can you queue up to clamber onto a national monument without even a sideways look from the authorities?

Silver Ghost
Silver Ghost

Let’s not kid ourselves you could witness some of the street performances in any continent but it feels like there’s less wariness here. People seem uninhibited and are eager to be drawn into the action.

Much ado about bathing
Much ado about bathing

Leicester Square plants the biggest smile on my face. As I bask in the strong afternoon sun a South American couple settle on the adjacent bench and their young children go to play in the fountain that encircles William Shakespeare. The little girl is having the time of her life playing in the water, mum is laughing along and dad is capturing it all on camera for future enjoyment.

Copping an ice cream
Copping an ice cream

A street party on Regent Street means that it is closed for traffic on this hot summers day. I grasp the sense of adventure visitors must feel as they walk across what amounts to a virtual monopoly board. So many familiar names and places and now the real thing.

Keeping them in suspense
Keeping them in suspense

Covent Garden seems to be crammed full of visitors at any time of day. They are lapping up the entertainment and who can blame them? This wasn’t in the tourist guide.

Serenaded to the collection hat
Serenaded to the collection hat

Downstairs tourists are serenaded by an ensemble of professional musicians who perform with infectious spirit. An enthusiastic applause echoes around the chamber and it’s clear that people want to be involved with what they are seeing. It also appears that Americans are the best tippers.

Painted lady
Painted lady

Outside it goes on and on. The day is starting to catch up with me but there’s an endless wave of energy bouncing off people having a great time. Do they ever tire? Well I do and it’s time to catch the 87 bus and take in many of today’s sights from the top deck on my way home.

Gawd bless you!
No caption required

Of course, it’s never over. I have loved the melting pot of nationalities, languages and cultures on my walk – a cosmopolitan sea of humanity. I have loved watching people take such joy from performances, places and objects that would fail to stir a glance from so many residents. And I have loved individuals like this gentleman for providing me with such visual entertainment. Gawd bless you guvnor!

Does anybody have more fun in London than the tourists?

South Bank Show

In my last blog I claimed that “job hunting is a full time job”. Who was I kidding? My NEW JOB is a full time job. Here I am one month on from that life of leisure and I find myself lodging in London near The Oval. Prior to landing the 6 month contract my forays south of the river have been limited to brief darts into the Tate Modern. Now my office overlooks the Thames and I’m learning about life betwixt The Oxo Tower and Battersea.

24 days ago I paid my first speculative visit to Vauxhall for an interview and I remember standing by the river in the freezing night air as I took a call saying the job was mine. I resolved to immerse myself in the locale, if not the river. Here’s a pictorial account of my journey downstream starting from my lodgings on a bright sunny morning.


My journey to work is less than spectacular it has to be said – a polluted walk through the arteries of Kennington clogged with crawling traffic and grim faced cyclists. I’m still the odd one out, taking a moment to enjoy the irregular old building subsumed by young upstarts devoid of architectural merit. Am I the only walker not babbling into bluetooth, wired for sound or gawping into a phone screen?

Towering presence
Towering presence

Even in this low-rise the leviathons of the city command the skyline – a reminder to mere street level folk of their subservience to those in a different fiscal plain. Until, in a game of one-upmanship, the sun emerges and decisively puts to bed any notion of superiority. My early start lends me the opportunity to swan around with my camera on the 7th floor of my Albert Embankment coal-face without fear of any odd looks.

Battersea beyond Vauxhall Bridge
Battersea beyond Vauxhall Bridge

To the south I can see Battersea and a swathe or real-estate whose value transcends monopoly board parlance. To the north – with a little zoom – Westminster and beyond.

Westminster - it may look innocent...
Westminster – it may look innocent…

And that’s where the fun stops, until lunchtime at least. One of the curious facets of the post-industrial urban oddity known as Vauxhall is the city farm squeezed into a pocket of land behind the elevated railway. There’s something delightfully reassuring about finding pigs in such a location.

Pig in the city
Pig in the city

Barely yards from the surrounding carmaggedon a horse rider nonchalantly trotts their steed across a side road into a small grassy enclosure for an early afternoon’s canter. Who would have thunk it?

And so passes 6 hours that feel like 6 days. Everyone else has headed for the weekend 2 hours ago and I take advantage of my finance directors abandoned office to capture a view that leaves me wondering how he gets any work done.

Worth working late for this view
Worth working late for this view

The lift arrives on demand – unheard of at rush hour when it’s the stairs or an interminable wait – and a chill night air greets me. The joggers have thinned out and I’ve time to capture a tower that Google Maps has yet to tag.

Western skies
Western skies

This is the business end of the South Bank and I’m the only person pointing a camera at the Vauxhall Bridge as buses file over carrying the last commuters of the day. There’s no hurry but I pick up the pace to keep warm and in no time Lambeth Bridge passes overhead.

Vauxhall Bridge
Vauxhall Bridge

Albert Embankment runs alongside the river and at this hour there are scant few pedestrians, leaving me in as much peace as an urban walk in London is likely to afford. To my right Lambeth Palace stands watch in the dark, barely heralded, perhaps worthy of a dedicated visit some other time.

Westminster: an MPs third home
Westminster: an MPs third home

The path dips beneath Lambeth Bridge and as Westminster hoves into view there are more people to be found – professional types, loners sat on benches and the young Japanese couples taking fruitless selfies on their iPhones with the Houses Of Parliament as backdrop. Planes fly over on descent to Heathrow and I like to think arriving visitors are enjoying views of iconic landmarks.

At the third stroke...
At the third stroke…

Everything changes upon exiting the underpass. The quiet dimly lit path is replaced by throngs of tourists groups drawn to the neon of some of London’s top tourist attractions. Shoals of visitors flit around the incongruously positioned London Aquarium (why come to London to see fish?). But the main draw here is the beautiful London Eye – lit up attractively against the night sky and visible from so many vantage points in the city.

Eye in the sky
Eye in the sky

The best position for a photo is from Jubilee Gardens set back from the Thames. My walk is energised by the bright-eyed enthusiasm of young school groups from Italy, France and beyond for whom this represents night-time adventure with friends! Memories are being made…

View from Jubilee Gardens
View from Jubilee Gardens

Next beneath the Hungerford footbridge – a structure I find very attractive at night. Originally constructed by Brunel (he gets everywhere) it was revamped in 2002 but 150 years on it still provides southern trains with access to Charing Cross station north of the river.

150 year old Hungerford Bridge
150 year old Hungerford Bridge

The final stretch of my walk tonight leads past numerous waterside eateries of varying standard and soon I’m upon one of my favourite Thames-side attractions. The Undercroft is an oddly conceived warren of angular concrete ramps and steps beneath the South Bank Centre that has drawn in skaters, stunt cyclists and grafitti artists for decades. Now under threat of expulsion for a proposed redevelopment the Undercroft community has been buoyed by a mass show of public support. Personally I can’t imagine a better advert for the south bank than one that organically attracts young people to express themselves in a safe and fun environment.

Teenage kicks
Teenage kicks

My riverside walk ends at Waterloo Bridge tonight. Beyond it the expansive National Theatre casts the mother of concrete shadows over the skyline although subtle coloured illumination takes the edge off its harsh design. I wish something similar could be achieved with the grotesque grey block of Westfield that hangs over the whole of Derby like some cuboid ash cloud…

Better than Westfield
Better than Westfield

I climb the stairs to street level and consider it time to find some hostelry in which to round off the evening. My instinct to walk to the north bank is curtailed by a policeman cordoning of the deserted bridge and I figure there’s probably some accident on the north bank. He’s concentrating on traffic so I’m able to sneak along part way and reel off a picture downstream of the magnificent light show in which banking skyscrapers reach the heights but St Paul’s takes the breath. Once the highest building in the capital I wonder what this panorama would have looked like in the days before chrome and steel.

St Pauls - still the real attraction
St Pauls – still the real attraction

Later, ensconced in a traditional London boozer tending a pint of Greenwich Meantime Pale Ale and reading the Evening Standard, I overhear a geezer at the bar moaning about the Waterloo Bridge closure. “Missed my bus I did. Waited for the next one but then they blocked it off cos of some drive-by shooting. It’s always the commuters that suffer ain’t it”. And that’s Londoners in a nutshell – always head-down and self-absorbed. They would do well to slow down and enjoy the show…