Category Archives: London

London Bridges

The River Thames has been a vital part of London since its beginnings as a Roman fort almost two thousand years ago. The buildings and monuments which cluster along its banks as it snakes its way down to the sea trace the city’s growth and mark the chapters of its history. So too, do the bridges which span it.

London Bridge is the city’s oldest, dating back 2000 years to Roman times. 1000 years later, the invading Vikings, led by King Olaf, stormed the bridge to attack the settlement. The then Londoners fought to defend it until they were thrown into the river and drowned. In a final blow, the victorious Vikings torched the bridge which gave rise to the famous nursery rhyme “London Bridge is burning down”. Since then the bridge has been rebuilt many times. In 1968, when it was up for renewal, an American developer bought the old version, shipped it out stone by stone and reconstructed it in Arizona. Today London Bridge, although architecturally somewhat plain and unremarkable, is one of the city’s busiest and most important.

Westminster Bridge, opened in 1750, was the first link between Westminster and the South Bank. It was rebuilt in 1862 in the same style as the Houses of Parliament and painted green to match the benches in the House of Commons.

Old Blackfriars Bridge illustrated in tiles
Blackfriars Bridge, Travelstripe

Built in 1769, Blackfriars Bridge takes its name from the Black Friars, the black-robed order of monks whose monastery sat nearby, on the north bank of the Thames, during the Middle Ages. The original bridge was demolished and rebuilt a century later but tile pictures of the first bridge remain in the passage which runs beneath it on the south bank.

The first Hungerford Bridge, was a small foot bridge, built 200 years ago to allow the people of Lambeth on the south bank access to the north-side Hungerford food market, which was named after the family whose mansion was originally located there. The foot bridge became a railway bridge when Charing Cross Station was built on the market site. The two Golden Jubilee foot bridges which flank the railway bridge were added to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

Construction began on Waterloo Bridge in 1811. Originally it was to be named Strand Bridge as it connected the south bank with The Strand. However by the time it was completed in 1817, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and it was the Bridge was named to mark his victory.

The first Southwark Bridge was designed by John Rennie and built in 1819. The present arch traffic bridge, completed in 1921, is the work of George Basil Mott. It is known as the Car Park Bridge because of the tourist coaches which wait there for their sightseeing passengers. Below the bridge are the original steps and mooring sites, used by the waterman of old, who ferried passengers across the river

Tower Bridge, which takes its name from nearby Tower of London, is a London icon and possibly the world’s best known bridge. Although it fits the style of the nearby Tower which dates back to the time of William the Conqueror, it was not built until the late 19th century, when increasing traffic in booming city created an urgent need for a new crossing lower downriver. The design was Horace Jones, the City Architect’s winning entry in an 1884 City Council competition. The bascules, or leaves, which can be raised to allow ships to pass on the river below, were the brainchild of engineer John Wolfe Barry.

Millenium Bridge which runs between the Tate Modern Art Gallery is a suspension foot bridge, carefully designed and constructed with cables running along its sides rather than above it, so that it is low enough to allow a view of St Pauls’ Cathedral, yet high enough to allow ships to pass underneath. It was built, of course, to mark the new millennium.

It is a picturesque, fascinating and not too taxing walk along the Thames bridges from Westminster passing under, or if you like over, Hungerford/Jubillee, Waterloo, Blackfriars, Millenium, Southwark, London and finally Tower. There are plenty of pleasant places to rest and catch the breath, lots of lovely cafes and quite a few pubs with spectacular views of the bridges and the river too.


A cruise on the Thames

‘There’s nothing, simply nothing, like messing around in boats’

Rat, Wind in the Willows.

If, like Ratty, you like messing around in boats, then London’s Thames River cruise on the Lady Margaret, definitely isn’t for you. There’s absolutely no messing about with this boat. It makes a first business-like beeline from Westminster Bridge to Festival Hall where it loads more passengers, then another to St Katherine’s pier at the Tower of London, dropping off visitors to the Tower and picking up people who have already been, before steaming back up-river to the home landing.

A view from the Thames
A view from the Thames

.I’d resisted the whole river-cruise idea, strongly. I didn’t fancy being crushed among several hundred other tourists in the stuffy centre of row upon row chairs in the bowels of a rumbling launch. But I caved in the face of that old “can’t visit London without a cruise on the Thames!” argument. Oddly enough, after watching other craft ply the tide, day after day, laden to the gunnels with people, I found myself one of only half-a dozen people on the Lady M’s outward journey and only a handful more on her return. This was probably because on that particular Sunday, the rain that had flooded the Midlands swept down and drove most Londoners indoors.

So we sat in the front row seats and looked out over the bow on a spectacular Thames vista, uninterrupted only by rivulets of rain.  Somewhere from on high a disembodied David Beckham voice pointed out the landmarks and described them with droll, dry, deadpan British wit as we passed – the London Eye (world’s largest bicycle wheel) The Tate Modern Art Gallery (presently showing a great exhibition of scrunched up newspaper – a must-see for the whole family) the Oxo factory (0s and Xs clock to cheat the advertising ban of the time) the million and one windows of the HSBC building (designed by and headquarters of a pair of Italian window cleaners) Traitor’s gate (where traitors, like Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, entered the Tower from the river to lose their heads) and the bridges – Tower, London, Millenium, Waterloo, Jubilee and finally Westminster.

The trip was too much too short and far too expensive. But still, there is something to be said for getting out among the boats and barges on the Thames, even if it was too cold and too wet to brave the top deck and feel the sting of the wind and the spray. London looks different from the Thames.


The Getting of Knowledge

Becoming a London Taxi Driver is a mysterious business.

A London Taxi
A London Taxi

For a long time I wondered about those figures in the bright yellow safety vests and helmets, with maps wedged into frames, rather like music-stands, on the handle bars of their motorbikes, who slowly cruise the streets of London, squinting at monuments and peering into buildings. At first I took them for couriers. Yet, somehow their pace (snail’s) and style (cautious) didn’t quite fit with the classic motorcycle courier’s speed and daring. Then I thought they might be tourists but the absence of cameras made that seem unlikely. They were clearly a group or force of some kind, united by a uniform of sorts (vests, helmets, maps, music stands and motorbikes) and certain distinctive behaviours (squinting and peering at monuments and buildings) Perhaps they were security guards ensuring the safety of the city’s landmarks or special agents tracking suicide statue bombers?

I puzzled on until, one day, one of these mystery riders crossed the path of my taxi. What luck! The driver was sure to have the answer to the enigma of the vested, map-reading monument-watchers. After all, London cabbies know everything.

“Excuse me, but that man on the motorbike, what’s he doing? I asked

“He’s getting the knowledge” the driver replied mysteriously.

The knowledge?” I whispered, leaning forward, my imagination fired. This is the home of Harry Potter and you can’t tell me that there isn’t a platform 31/2 somewhere at Victoria Station or a wand shop in one of those dark, narrow, city lanes. So wizards on motorbikes, why not?

“The knowledge is what you must have” the driver went on, “to drive a London taxi”.

Pure muggle, I decided as the motorcyclist puttered past into an alley – no flash of cape or trace of lightning scar.

Still, the study and exams involved in acquiring the knowledge make the programme at Hogwart’s Academy seem like a kindergarten course and A level Wizardry as easy as 1,2,3. The knowledge consists of 400 London routes, including all hotels, hospitals, stations, buildings, businesses, theatres, cinemas, landmarks and monuments as well as all their histories. The aspiring taxi driver spends four years in pursuit of the knowledge; studying maps, reading histories and riding the city streets to master it. Candidates take the first of their formal, collar and tie oral exams after two years. Questions consist of the quickest route from A to B, the location of the nearest hospital to point X or the history of a certain building or landmark. The second and final exam is tougher, with more complex questions and trick scenarios where “clients” change their destinations suddenly from hotel to hospital and the candidate must find the nearest and the quickest way to get there. Having proven that s/he has the knowledge and also that s/he is fluent in English, the graduate can buy the taxi, which costs thirty thousand pounds and begin a career as a cabbie.

“And what about witty banter?” I asked “Surely that’s part of the knowledge too!”

“No, my darlin’”.  The driver’s eyes in the rear vision mirror were inscrutable “That’s something we were born with, you can’t learn that!”

Like muggles and wizards, I thought to myself.

Borough Market

It’s Saturday morning at Borough Market, London’s oldest, most famous and most popular fresh food market. 3376

Produce at Borough Market
Produce at Borough Market

A dense, slow-moving crowd of back-packs, baskets, shopping trolleys, along with wide-eyed, camera-wielding tourists, weaves through the narrow aisles and mills around the chain of stalls stacked with colourful produce. The air is heavy with tantalising smells. The shrill cries of the touts rise above the hubbub of chatter, the distant beat of a busker’s drum, the intermittent roar of a train and the constant rumble of traffic.

There was a market here in Southwark, just south of London Bridge, at the time of the Roman conquest in the 5th century. It survived the subsequent invasion by the Norsemen, who burned down the bridge. After the arrival of King Canute in 1014AD, the bridge was reconstructed and the market re-installed. By the 13th century, however, it had begun to cause access problems and was ousted.

After several re-locations, The market found a home at the meeting point of all the roads from the South Coast into the city of London. Merchants from all over London traded their produce there and travellers stopped there to stock up and eat before resuming their journeys. This was the beginning of Borough Market’s international fame.

By the 18th century, with the industrial revolution, the Southwark skyline was a forest of factory chimneys and its roads were congested with traffic. The market, in its central location was major obstruction. In 1754, it was demolished and re-located to the present site which since has proved perfect for the sale of produce arriving at the Pool of London and at London Bridge Railway Station.

Today, Borough Market is administered by a Trust composed of local residents. It is a centre for food excellence and attracts customers from all over London and tourists from all over the world. Merchants come from all over England and Europe to sell their produce. Delicious local fruit, fish, meat, milk, cider, beer, fruit juices and preserves take their place alongside olives, olive oil, pasta and sauces from Italy, cheese, wine and bread from France, a thousand and one wursts from Germany, and oranges from Spain and Portugal. It is still totally dedicated to food and drink. The only things on sale which are not edible or drinkable are charming plates, bowls, cups, glasses, tea-towels, oven cloths, aprons and mouth-watering pictures of food.

Borough Market has recently celebrated 250 years of trading on its current site. Although threatened by a plan to extend London Bridge Railway Station, the Trust and the local residents are determined to see it survive another 200 years of trading.

An evening at Ronnie Scott’s

Although we booked a week in advance for Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Gerrard Street, Soho, London, there were no tables left for either the 6p.m. or the 11 p.m. show. This was not surprising. The band of the night, the Ronnie Scott Legacy Band, rarely performs and the club is always heavily booked. So for 20 pounds we reserved places “at the bar” or “on the side”. Imagining a rush for a few square inches of standing room in mosh-pit crush, or two inches of elbow room at the bar, we arrived ahead of time and with a sizeable queue of other early-birds, ran the entry gauntlet. First we passed the front door security where our names were checked against the guest list and we were warned off using phones and cameras, then through the cloak-room check-in, then through a reception team, where our names were checked against another list and lastly to a charming waitress who showed us to our places “on the side”.

Ronnie Scott's
Ronnie Scott’s

Low ceilinged, dim and small, the club has the feel of the classic jazz basement but with none of the smoky closeness or the worn, shabby look. Ronnie Scott’s is chic, plush, hip and very, very cool. Its colours are black and red with the occasional hint of chrome. The dark walls are hung with black and white photos of the stars and superstars who have made Ronnie Scott ’s an icon among music clubs. There are two semi-circles of tables, lit with red lamps, at the centre of the room, close to the stage. At the back of the room, the bar is small and discreet with low lights and tones. The seats “on the side” are tiered in rows, behind benches, also lit with red lamps, for drinks and for those who choose to dine.

Ronnie Scott’s offers two menus, one for each show, and three courses. The choices are good, with four or five options for entrees, mains and desserts. The dishes we chose (the cod and the duck) were excellent. The wine list looked tempting but we by-passed it for the cocktails, which were simply irresistible. The Fitzgerald and the Mojito, each with a little cube of absinthe soaked sugar fizzing away in their depths, tasted delicious and were very potent.

The evening’s support band, the Ronnie Scott All Stars, consisting of drummer, bass player and a brilliant pianist/vocalist, were very, very good – a powerful build-up and a great lead-in to the main performance. The audience was peppered with people who looked as if they might well have been around in the days when the club was a basement in Gerrard Street and snippets of over-heard conversation behind and beside us suggested that most were devout fans of jazz and of Ronnie Scott. The anticipation was palpable and the sense of occasion awesome. When the Legacy Band appeared, there was a roar of cheering, whistles and long applause. With Mark Fletcher on drums, Tim Wells on double bass, Pat Crumley on Saxophone and that stalwart of so many of Ronnie Scott’s own quartets, octets and combos, John Critchinson, on the keyboards, the music was magnificent. In a voice that is cultured English at its smoothest and, yes, sexiest, John Critchinson introduced the band and the numbers, reminisced just a little, tossed out some of those one-liners and asides and re-told some of those old jokes that Ronnie Scott was famous for. For everyone, club debutants and old lags alike, the magic of Ronnie Scott’s the club and Ronnie Scott the man was alive again.

Ronnie Scott’s

On October 30, 1959, in Gerrard Street, Soho, London, saxophonists Pete King and Ronnie Scott opened the modest basement jazz club which was to become a major influence on British music and survive for over half century as a mecca for jazz musicians and fans from all over the world. 2030

Soho, London Travelstripe
Soho, London Travelstripe

When the club opened Ronnie Scott was already a jazz legend on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the earliest British musicians to adopt the bebop style of Charlie Parker, he had played for over a decade alongside such greats as Johnny Claes, Ted Heath, Cab Kaye, Tito Burns, John Dankworth, Jack Parnell, Victor Feldman, Hank Shaw, Phil Seaman and Tubby Hayes. He had won the approval of great jazzmen like Charles Mingus who said: “Of the white boys, Ronnie Scott gets closer to the negro blues feeling, the way Zoot Sims does”

From the start, the impact of Scott and King’s new club on the British music scene was enormous. Not only did it expose the local musicians and fans to Trans-Atlantic influences such as Zoot Sims and Sonny Rollins, but it also promoted domestic artists like Tubby Hayes, Dick Morissey, Ernest Ranglin and Stan Tracy. Ronnie Scott’s rapidly became legendary. When the lease ran out on the Gerrard Street basement in 1965 and Ronnie Scott’s moved to its present location it continued until 1967, under the name of “The Old Place”, as a venue for emerging local talents, among them Eric Clapton.

Meanwhile, the reputation and success of Ronnie Scott’s, Frith Steet grew. Duke Ellington played here. The Who’s Tommy premiered here and tragically, it was at Ronnie Scott’s that Jimmy Hendrix gave his last public performance. Music videos, films, TV shows and radio programmes were recorded at Ronnie’s , earning Scott his 1981 OBE “for services to jazz”. In May 1995, Van Morrison and Georgie Fame, both frequent performers at the club, recorded the album “How Long Has This Been Going On” here, with Pee Wee Ellis on the saxophone.

Throughout this period, Ronnie Scott played on in various groups, most of which included keyboards player John Critchinson. As the clubs Master of Ceremonies, he was famous for his repertoire of jokes. At this time he also did session work, including the solo on The Beatles Lady Madonna.

Ronnie Scott died in 1996 and Pete King continued to run the club until, finally, in 2005, it was sold to theatre impresario Sally Green.

The club’s reputation and popularity continue. It attracts music lovers and jazz aficionados of all ages from all corners of the world. It is still a popular haunt of many old patrons from its early years including big names of music and show business. Ronnie Scott’s has recently re-opened after extensive renovations and re-organisation, to accommodate the hundreds of patrons who cram into it every night. It now offers 2 sessions, from 6 to 10.30 p.m and from 11p.m. 3.a.m. There are mutterings out there among the old guard that the ambience, spontaneity and spirit of Ronnie’s have been lost in renovation. Is it true, I wonder?

Find out in Travelstripe’s next post – A Night at Ronnie Scott’s.