A walk on the Thames

Inspired by a post about Street Photography, I set off, armed with camera and notebook, for a walk along Bankside, on the South bank of the Thames, to explore.

It was a rare day for late autumn London. It was perfect – windless, dry and cool, with a clear blue cloudless sky. It was a day of sharp, contrasting light, of bright, blinding sunshine and dark, crisp-edged shadows. It was the kind of day you have to seize, savour and store away to remember, later, when winter throws a veil of damp grey over everything. It was an ideal day for a walk along the Thames.

The tide was out on the Thames
The tide was out on the Thames

The tide was out on the Thames and down in the sand at Gabriel’s Pier, two sculptors worked swiftly, setting up a table and sofas for their castle before the river rose and claimed them.

Down past Blackfriars Bridge, the last tenacious leaves looked as dark as old pennies, now against the trees’ pale exposed branches.

An invisible plane traced a travel stripe, like an invading line of chalk on a clean board, across the sky towards the tall dark chimney of the Tate Modern Art Gallery.

In the shadow of the Oxo building a grey-faced homeless man huddled with his dog under a blanket, while across the river the dome St Paul’s Cathedral shone pristine white against the skyline.

The Globe Theatre was bathed in sunshine.

The skate park in the recesses of the bridge near Festival Hall, was a blur of grafitti and wheels.

Under Millennium Bridge, the jazz band danced and played and spread the spirit of Christmas.

And the living statues on South bank outdid themselves

Lambeth Palace Gardens

Bounded by high stone walls, its gates firmly locked for most of the year against the outside world, the Lambeth Palace garden is one of London’s best kept and loveliest secrets.

Lambeth Palace Garden, London
Lambeth Palace Garden, London

The first garden was established, in what was then the countryside surrounding London, by the monks of Rochester who grew fruit, herbs and vegetables for their table. At the end of the 12th century, it became the garden of Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The old monastery chapel, built in 1234 and the crypt chapel built in 1215 still stand today, along with some of the monks’ original trees and vines. The Palace has had many alterations and additions over the years. The oldest remaining sections are Cranmer’s Tower which dates back to 1550 and the Great Hall which was built in 1664. Architect Edward Blore’s main palace building, which houses the state rooms and the Archbishop’s private accommodation, was the last addition to the complex. It was completed in 1830.

The garden has been meticulously maintained and developed over the centuries. It is planted with a huge range and variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. It is still highly productive.

The orchard, which contains apples, pears, quinces and plums, stands near the site of the first vegetable garden. The “White Marseilles” fig trees were planted in 1556 by Cardinal Archbishop Pole. The tulip trees were introduced by John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I. The rose terrace was built in about 1930 by Archbishop Cosmo Lang and includes the famous pink Savoy Hotel bloom. The native hedge is planted with blackthorn, hawthorn, honeysuckle, holly and hazel. Secluded walks border the garden, like the Hornbeam Allee which forms a promenade to a circle of native hedge with seats at the end, or the Woodland Walk, which is lined with fragrant  flowers.

There are vast, sunny lawns, ponds and fountains. Spreading mulberry and beech trees are underplanted with carpets of spring bulbs. Fountains patter gently on ponds. Bees from the hives introduced in 2004 by the London Beekeeper’s Association potter unhurriedly among the flowers.

The Lambeth Palace Garden is now one of the oldest and largest private gardens in London.  Today it forms part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ministry and is used by many different organizations and charities. An historic site, it is a most important part of the English heritage.

Tours of the Palace take place twice weekly, on Thursdays at 11 a.m. and 2pm and on Fridays at 11am from February until November.

The garden is open to the public only three times a year for;

  • National Gardens Scheme on a Saturday afternoon in late May
  • London Open garden Squares on the first Saturday in June
  • North Lambeth Parish Fete on the last Saturday afternoon in June.

The Traditional English Pub

Quaint, cosy and colourful, the traditional English pub is high on the list of London’s visitor attractions..

The Sherlock Holmes
The Sherlock Holmes

Many of them are little bolt-holes, tucked between buildings or sunk below street level, with bow windows of glass as thick as old bottles, low-beamed ceilings and smoke stained walls. Others are grand old establishments, with paneled walls, curtained alcoves or snugs, walls hung with trophies or portraits of eminent figures from history and cavernous fireplaces with crackling fires. There’s usually a certain aroma, peculiar to British pubs, not found in cafes or even in bars – of beer and comfort food; roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and gravy. There’s usually a comfortable, homely ambience too.

Many young travellers find a home away from home in a London pub, living upstairs and working in the bar or the kitchen and for many locals the pub is the lounge-room. Every pub has its history and its story, often found in its name, like the dark, subterranean Coal Hole on The Strand, Ye Olde Cheddar Cheese and Ye Olde Cocke in Fleet Street, the  many Queen’s and Kings Arms and Heads, named for the reigning monarch at the time of construction and then, of course there are those named for some local landmark, like St Stephen’s tavern, in Westminster, named for St Stephen’s Tower at Westminster Palace   .

The Sherlock Holmes on Northumberland Street at Craven passage is a classic. It has an ornate Victorian exterior and a dark-timbered, stained-glassed 19th century interior. It is redolent of fine old British fare. Formerly named the Northumberland Arms, it is thought to have been the Northumberland Hotel of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Now, of course it is named for its theme. The downstairs bar is hung with Holmes pictures, pipes and sticks. Upstairs is a replica of Holmes and Watson’s 221 Baker Street sitting room including period furniture, shelves stacked with potions, bottles and books, a violin and a Holmes mannequin. Yet, although this pub is many ways a Sherlock shrine which has its fair share of Holmes pilgrims and tourists, it still has that familiar, comfy, British pub feeling. It has its tables of locals and its completely “at home” handful of young Anzac accented bar staff.

There’s great, old English pub on every London block, often more. There’s one for almost every preference and anyone who stays for any length of time will surely find a favourite.

The Tower of Big Ben

The Tower of Big Ben, at the north-eastern edge of the British Houses of Parliament, on the bank of the Thames at Westminster Bridge, is a dominant point of the London skyline. It has become a symbol of the city and of all things British.

The Tower of Big Ben
The Tower of Big Ben

The gothic revival tower was designed by Augustus Pugin for architect Charles Barry’s rebuild of the Palace of Westminster, which had been destroyed by fire in 1834. The stone-clad, brick structure is topped with a framed spire of cast iron. The clock faces and gilded dials, also designed by Pugin, are set in a 7 metre frame and covered with 312 pieces of opal glass. Gilded inscriptions at the bas e of the clock-face read “Domine salvat fac reginam nostram Victoriam Primam” “God save Victoria the first, our Queen”

The clock’s mechanism was designed by lawyer and amateur horologist, Edmund Beckett Deniston. It is famously reliable, ticking its way even through the Blitz without missing a beat. The only major breakdown occurred on August 5, 1976, due to metal fatigue, which put the clock out of action until May 9, 1977.

The name Big Ben, now applied to the tower and the clock, comes in fact from the largest of its bells. Officially, and appropriately, known as the Great Bell, it weighs 14.5 tonnes. It was cast by Warners of Cripplegate, in Stockton-on-Keys on August 10, 1856. The bell is thought to have been named either after Sir Benjamin Hall, commissioner of works at the time or the contemporary heavyweight boxer, Benjamin Caunt.

Big Ben is the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world. It is probably the famous and reputedly the most reliable. It is the certainly the arbiter of British time; it rings in every New Year; its chimes echo up and down the Thames, marking the time for the people who live and work within earshot; they echo through radios across the nation and millions of timepieces tick to its beat.

It is possible to tour the tower and see the great clock and its bells from the inside but only by prior arrangement. UK residents can arrange a visit by writing to their MPs and overseas visitors can request a tour by writing, 3 months in advance, to;

Clock Tower Tours, 1 Parliamentary Works services Directorate, 1 Canon Row, London, SW1A 2JN

Victoria Embankment

Sitting on a bench, overlooking the tamed and ordered paths and gardens of Victoria Embankment, it’s hard to imagine that little more than a century and a half ago, the turbulent waters of the Thames rushed right through here. Just as difficult to believe is that, deep in the bowels of the earth, below these crocus-dotted lawns, blossom-cloaked trees and majestic monuments, tonnes of London sewage gurgle away, through a colossal pipe, to safely distant disposal.

Spring in Embankment Gardens
Spring in Embankment Gardens

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the city’s sewage discharged directly into the Thames. The stench of the water was foul and the diseases it carried, right to the very doorstep of the city, were deadly. After an outbreak of cholera killed 10,000 people in 1853, the engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to design a new and safe sewage system. Fifty-two acres of land were reclaimed from the Thames to create Chelsea and Victoria Embankment to the north and Albert Embankment to the south. Beneath them, Bazalgette located two “interceptor” sewers to divert the city’s waste away from the river. The project was completed in 1859 and it was decided that public gardens should be established on the Victoria Embankment.

In 1864, Alexander MacKenzie began work on the Embankment Gardens Topsoil was brought from Barking Creek and twenty acres was laid out in garden beds, lawns, trees and shrubberies. The York Water Gate, a confection of pillars, lions, pediments and pilasters built by Balthasar Gerbier in 1626 and once part of the Duke of Buckingham’s riverside mansion (demolished in 1676) was incorporated to serve as the west end entrance. Statues were erected to famous Britons, including Robert Burns, Arthur Sullivan and John Stuart Mill. In 1877, 180 tonne Cleopatra’s Needle, built originally for the Pharoah Thothmes III in 1467, was installed in the gardens. The Royal Camel Corps memorial and the Golden Eagle of the RAF are also located here. Victoria Embankment was the first London area to be lit by electricity.

Today, Victoria Embankment is a popular retreat, always busy with strollers, tourists, picnicking families, school groups and workers on lunch breaks. It is a quiet detour along the back of the Strand through to Covent Garden or Fleet Street. There are pleasant green vistas and clean, earthy smells to enjoy at any season, beautiful blossom and bulbs in Spring, bright flowers in Summer and leaves of every shade in Autumn.

The British Museum

The Grand Foyer of the British Museum
The Grand Foyer of the British Museum

The British Museum is one of London’s landmark buildings, home to some of the world’s most precious treasures, birthplace of many great works of history and literature, the inspiration of poets and an eternal source of interest and wonder to countless visitors from all over the world.

The British Museum was originally established to house the collection of more than 71,000 objects, a library and a herbarium gifted to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane. It opened on January 15, 1759 in a 17th century mansion, Montagu House, on the present Bloomsbury site. However, over the next century the rapidly expanding collections outgrew it. The present imposing rectangular structure was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1852. The circular reading room, in the centre of the grand court, was added in 1857. A glass and steel ceiling now covers the court, linking the reading room to the main building and creating new indoor spaces for restaurants, cafes, shops and ticketing.

Over the years the British Museum has acquired one of the largest and best collections of documents, artefacts and antiquities in the world, although some collections, like the British Library and the Natural History section have been re-located and become separtae enmtities. Star among the museum’s antiquities is the Rosetta stone, key to the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the mother of the written word. Its documents include the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne gospels and the manuscripts of Beowolf. It has halls of treasures from Asia, peat-preserved men from pre-historic Britain, fine porcelain from the Royal Courts of Europe and spectacular feather head-dresses and beaded cloaks from North America. It has dark-polished glass-fronted display cases full of fossils and crystals, artefacts and effigies from the Pacific including taonga from Aotearoa-New Zealand; carved waka huia (feather boxes) along with patu and mere (weapons) of bone and of greenstone of a weight, depth and lustre no longer seen.

The museum played a significant role in the lives and work of many political figures and writers. Karl Marx researched Das Kapital in the British library here. Charles Dickens was a member. Wyndham Lewis worked constantly in the reading room during the 1920s. The Bohemian Socialists, including George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, used to meet here. Colin Wilson wrote his first novel, the Outsider here. The British Museum features in the work of many writers including Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Arthur Conan Doyle (The Adventures of Wisteria Lodge) and Bram Stoker (Dracula). Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn were both inspired by objects in the Museum. Finally and best of all, for the sentimental and tender-hearted, romantic Malcolm Bradbury (The History of Man) wooed his girlfriend in the British Museum reading room, with notes left between the pages of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.

Entry to the British Museum is free. It is open daily but times are subject to change. Further Information on the museum times, special exhibitions, collections and history visit www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uks

The Tate Modern

The vista from the windows of the Tate Modern is so spectacular it’s easy to get distracted from its galleries full of awe-inspiring art.

Originally the home to the Bankside Power Station, the building was converted by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron and opened in 2000 as the Tate Modern Art Gallery. Set back from the Thames, behind a wide piazza and a plantation of trees, the massive, powerful brick structure, with its towering “lighthouse” chimney, dominates the riverbank and the skyline. The Millenium Bridge leads away from the piazza across the river to link it to the other side. Long windows, spaced along the building’s upper levels give real life, stunning pictures of Bankside, the Thames, St Pauls and the glass towers of the city.

The Tate Modern
The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s collection is organised under three headings – Material Gestures, poetry and Dream, Idea and Object and States of Flux – very useful for the layperson in tackling the enigma of modern art. It covers such movements as Abstractionism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Constructivism, Cubism, Futurism and Pop Art. It includes the work of artists like Monet, Rothko, Carl Andie, Dan Flavin, Jenny Holzer, Picasso and Andy Warhol. The Tate is famed for its cutting edge and often controversial exhibits, like the giant Louise Bourgois spider which crouched menacingly in the courtyard when I first visited and Doris Salcedo’s sculpture, Shobboleth 2007, a giant crack which snaked threateningly across the floor of the cavernous basement Turbine Gallery, ready to swallow the unwitting and the unwary.

It’s worth taking time at the Tate, just to drink it all in; the brilliant views, the incredible collections and the amazing architecture itself. There are also two great bookshops to browse and a very nice café for coffee breaks. Entry to most exhibitions at the Tate is free.

The London Eye

Although the latest and newest of London’s great landmarks, the London Eye has rapidly become one of its most popular. 3.5 million visitors per year pack like cattle into the queuing channels that stretch back from the river alongside County Hall, and wait for hours for a 45 minute whirl through the sky above the Thames.

Originally named the Millenium Wheel, and quickly dubbed “the big bike wheel”, the Eye was commissioned to mark the turn of the 21st century. The spinning circle of the Eye is a metaphor for the passage of time.

A view from the Eye
A view from the Eye

This great feat of architecture, engineering and design was masterminded by husband and wife team David Mark and Julia Barfield. The massive 2,100 ton structure was built further along the Thames then transported down the river in sections and assembled by a giant floating crane. The official opening and inaugural spin took place on December 31, 1999.

At its highest point the Eye is 135 metres high. Its 32 air-conditioned glass observation capsules, each accommodating 25 passengers, give a spectacular 40 kilometre view over London.

The London Eye was the tallest wheel in the world until 2006, when it was eclipsed by the Star of Nanchang and shortly thereafter by the Singapore flyer. Now it seems, every second city has its own Eye in the sky.

While it has the look of towering ferris wheel, the Eye offers none the thrills. Apart from the quick and measured step into and out of the moving capsules, a turn in the Eye is a somewhat tame experience, not unlike a slow, gentle and silent scenic circle in a plane. Sponsors, British Airways, offer the same kinds of “This-is-your-Captain-speaking’ welcome on embarkation, as well as in-flight cautions about refraining from smoking, eating, drinking and leaning on doors (– as if!) and “We hope you enjoyed your flight” farewells as any plane trip. However, the panorama of London and the Thames is breathtaking. The close-up view of the hub and spokes of the huge, turning wheel and the companion capsules hanging above and below is awe-inspiring.

For the vertiginous and claustrophobic, however, the Eye is as lovely from below and afar, as from inside and atop. From any vantage point, it looks sensational; it is beautiful seen from both the Westminster and the Hungerford bridges, looking from Embankment across the Thames, approaching from Waterloo past Shell Centre or strolling down Southbank. It is stunning by night, a radiant circle of neon suspended in the dark and at New Year, it is a shower of brilliant lights as fireworks explode around it.

The Eye is a feature of the city skyline now, just as the Eiffel tower is part of the Paris horizon. Just like Gustave Eiffel’s tower on the Champ de Mars, the initial appearance of Mark and Barfield’s Eye on Southbank provoked fierce controversy and debate with the cons condemning it as an eyesore and a waste of money and the pros defending it as a monumental achievement of design, architecture and engineering. Just as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of the French reach into the twentieth century, so too, the Eye is a symbol of the English turn into the twenty-first. And in the same way as the Eiffel Tower has endured to become a Paris icon, so too is the Eye becoming a London icon.


A Little slice of Paris in South Kensington

London is full of surprises; remnants of villages that have been half-devoured by developments, slivers of past eras wedged between modern high-rises; patches of nature, by-passed by roads jammed with speeding traffic and little pieces of other countries, foreign footholds on British soil, like Soho’s China town, Brick Lane’s little Bangldesh and of course, that slice of the wide brown land, Earl’s Kangaroo Court.

South Kensington, London
South Kensington, London

Quite recently, much to my surprise and thanks to a charming Francophile Londoner and her expatriate partner, I discovered, down in South Kensington, a quaint little outpost of France, where the flavour of the neighbourhood is distinctly French and where “Ca Va?” has supplanted “All right?”. It begins in the block just opposite the Natural History Museum, on Brompton Road, where the Tricolor flies and a queue of permit seekers straggles along the pavement outside the French Consulate General. Next door is the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, the French Senior High School, where kids in sneakers and jeans hang out on the steps in a way that strikes a bold contrast with their uniformed English brothers and sisters. Behind it is L’Institut Francais which runs French Language classes for Anglophones, as well as courses for Francophones. Its café is meeting place and above all, a place to speak French. Its library is fantastic, lending not just books but also videos DVDs and CDs. The London French Cinema is also located here.

Behind it is the Primary School, where “Mamans Francaises” gossip in the playground while waiting for their “petits” to finish for the day. Round the corner is the Children’s library, its windows bedecked with stories of Christmas in France.

Over the road is La Cave au Fromage which offers a million wonderful French cheeses in a display that is a work of art.

Along the road is a Boulangerie/Patisserie with all the baguettes, the ficelles, the petits pains, the pains de campagne, the croissants and the tartes that Mamy used to buy from the Boulanger in the village.

Then there are the cafes, the bars and the restaurants….

So, if you’re suffering un peu de mal du pays, if you’re longing for a little je ne sais quoi francais, want to lose yourself in un film francais, or even have a yen to parler un mot de francais, head down to South Kensington, that little patch of London which is always L’Hexagone.


Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf  on the West India Dock, in the far east of London, was once one of the country’s busiest most important ports. It was also a key link in the chain of London’s early growth and prosperity. It was, however, prosperity, built partly on a shameful trade.

Concrete, steel and glass at Canary Wharf
Concrete, steel and glass at Canary Wharf

It was from West India Dock that ships set sail for Africa where they picked up slaves bound for the plantations of the West Indies.  After delivering their living cargo to its destination, they reloaded with sugar and returned to London. The docks gradually died in the 1960s and 70s and finally closed when all shipping trade moved to the container port down river at Tilsbury.

In 1991, the docklands were re-born as “London’s most ambitious commercial development” with the opening of the magnificent Canada Tower on Canary Wharf. Designed by Argentine Cesar Pelli, who was also the architect of Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, 50 storey Canada Tower is 250 metres high and the tallest office building in Europe. It dominates the city’s eastern skyline and those who are lucky enough to live or work there, enjoy fantastic views.

Twenty three years later, Canary Wharf is a booming twenty-first century urban village. It sounds like a great place to live and work. Trains glide in and out of the spanking clean, light-filled, convenient underground station, on the Jubilee line, regularly and frequently and a ferry service operates from Westminster.

There are 21 gleaming office buildings with stunning views. The complimentary glossy magazine, Canary Wharf City Life lists thousands of beautiful, luxurious, state-of-the-art apartments for rent or sale in complexes catering to every conceivable modern need, wish or whim, including of course the “commanding view”. There are numerous leisure facilities, including cinemas and  a theatre.

The Museum at Docklands is devoted to the history of the docks. The  Sugar and Slavery Gallery  is devoted to exhibitions on the slave trade, the sugar trade and their contribution to London’s prosperity. Also on display is a full, real-life salon from the Queen Mary.

A wide range of cafes and restaurants cater for every palate and ethnicity both above and below ground. Above ground, around the piazzas, diners can enjoy a glimpse of the old docks – the sea, the wharves, the odd boat bobbing at its moorings and seagulls wheeling overhead – a little chilly at this time year perhaps, but beautiful in the summer.

Shopping in Canary Wharf’s splendid underground caverns is similar to shopping in one of Asia’s sumptuous malls, like Kuala Lumpur’s KLCC; no day or night, just neon light time; neither summer heat nor winter chill, just air-conditioned constancy; seductive piped music; shop after shop full of wonderful things interspersed with cafes and eateries exuding exotic smells and a giant Waitrose Supermarket, with shelf after shelf of colourful tempting stock.

Community life appears to be thriving in this fast ultra-modern setting. Citizens’, Residents’ and Neighbourhood  flourish in Canary Wharf’s concrete courtyards and corridors just as they do in the suburbs or the village. Every season and festival sees a community celebration. Soon the Christmas lights will go on and then Santa will come to town.