Saturday, February 21, 2009
London Bridge is ... still standing
It's been a very busy week again and I've been to all four corners of the capital. Yesterday took me out to Croydon in Surrey and, as I had a few spare minutes before catching a connecting train at London Bridge, I thought I'd go for a short wander around its environs.
The area around London Bridge is dripping with history - not the least of which involves the bridge itself where once executed people's heads were displayed on spikes. The newest incarnation has been there since 1973 and, if I'm being honest, is one of London's least lovely bridges. Which is a bit of a shame as London Bridge was, for a long time, the only bridge linking the two halves of London together. It took until 1750 before a second bridge appeared at Westminster. So, by my reckoning, London Bridge deserves to be much bigger and better than it is. At one time it was a huge structure covered in shops and houses - rather like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy - including the enormous Nonsuch house that squatted on one end like a fat bloke on a toilet seat. Here's a reconstruction. However, there are plenty of things near to London Bridge that make the area a joy to stroll around. And I'm not talking about the obvious tourist attractions like the London Dungeon - a kind of chamber of horrors that I've blogged about before - and the dead hulk of ex-warship HMS Belfast.
There's Borough Market, which, I was delighted to see, had one stallholder who was proud to advertise that his family had been selling potatoes on the site since 1875. It's a busy, busy place and over the last few years has mostly gone over to the selling of good quality home-grown and organic produce. If I lived a little closer to it, I'd never visit a supermarket again. Then there's Southwark Cathedral, itself a lovely building.
Wandering out behind the market you come to Guy's Hospital; a bizarre mish-mash of architectural styles with older colonnaded stone buildings rubbing their buttresses against huge concrete tower blocks and the knobbly steel-mesh of the New Salamons Centre. Mr Guys Hospital for Incurables, as it was once known, first appeared on the site in 1725 when the area was still very green. Street names like Great Maze Pond allude to a time when farmers would stop here on their way to Smithfield meat market to allow their cattle to graze and drink. The area where the hospital and bridge stand is known as the Pool of London still.
The Thames was London's main avenue of commerce once with hugely loaded ships and barges jostling on the waters like lorries on a motorway today. Consequently, this area of London has old wharf houses crowded along the river's edge. Once they serviced the river traffic with cranes and hoists and storage but now, sadly, the river is barely used for transport - too slow for our modern lifestyles - and many of the wharves fell into disrepair. But during the 1980s and 1990s, many were bought and preserved. Some became expensive housing developments; London's equivalent of the New York loft appartments. And some, like Hays Wharf on Tooley Street, were turned into shopping malls. The Hays Galleria is very nicely appointed with coffee shops and restaurants, shops and galleries and all enjoying terrific views of the river. The central court has had a delicate cast iron roof built over it and, at the centre, stands a quirky kinetic sculpture called Navigators by fellow Cornishman David Kemp (of whom I've talked in previous blog posts).
Walk out of the back of the Galleria and you join Queens Walk, a riverside path that takes you between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. Again, great views of the river and the City of London. Is there another skyline so varied anywhere else in the world?