To many tourists London is Piccadilly Circus, West End, Hyde Park and Big Ben, places all north of the Thames. To me London is first and foremost the south side of the river with the South Bank.
South Bank – the city’s forgotten underside
South Bank is the name of the area on the south bank of River Thames opposite Westminster. Even though South Bank belongs to Central London it remained for long an industrialized area with few attractions. This was “the city’s forgotten underside” but this greatly changed around the millennium when three giant attractions opened on the south side: First London Eye in 1999, then Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge the year after. Today the South Bank is a tourist magnet but is still a somewhat quiet area with one of the finest river walks in London, resembling the Brooklyn Heights Promenade so often portrayed in films from New York. South Bank is also rich in culture and history – and of course good food.
When I am in London I mostly stay in Waterloo, a place best known for having the biggest train station in London. But Waterloo is more than a station. It is situated next to River Thames, the South Bank Centre and the London Eye, and is just a short bridgewalk from Covent Garden.
Waterloo belongs to the borough of Lambeth, one of the poorer boroughs in London, although you will not notice much poverty here in Lambeth North. A short walk from the train station lies The Cut, a street rich in food and theatre. At the end of the street one of the oldest theatres in London, Old Vic, has graced the theatre scene since its opening in 1818. The American actor Kevin Spacey is artistic director and renowned actors from Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave have entered the stage. Last time I was in London Kirsten Scott Thomas starred in Electra and before that “Samantha” from Sex and the City played the leading actor. It may sound surprising. To me Samantha personifies New York, but Kim Cattral was born in Merseyside, Liverpool.
Further down The Cut a much younger and experimental theater called Young Vic lies with a popular theatre-restaurant, The Cut Bar. London and Las Vegas were voted best cocktail cities by the food magazine Saveur and here they serve cocktails named after areas in London. What about a Hoxton Honey with raspberries, raspberry liqueur and vodka or a Borough Market with strawberries, basil, vodka and pepper? Or should we stick to Waterloo’s own Waterloo Sun with vanilla vodka, apple schnapps, apple juice and cinnamon?
However the star of the show is the Anchor and Hope, one of the finest gastropubs in London, always crowded and noisy, serving modern British food at a reasonable price. If you think British food is fish and chips, challenge your taste buds at Anchor and Hope. For a typical British meal, try the Sunday Roast – a sort of small-scale Christmas dinner. Other nice options for eating nearby is Wahaca and Byron Burger. If you go further down the street, The Cut continues into Union Street going all the way to Borough Market, the oldest market in London. But there is another way to Borough. Along the river.
Thames is more than a river in London. The 346 kilometre (215 miles) long river is the longest river in England and runs from Gloucestershire through towns like Oxford and Windsor before it meets the North Sea. The Thames received sewage and animal carcasses culminating in The Great Stink of 1858 where members of the House of Commons had to leave their seats because of the stench. In the 19th. century the river was so polluted that eels, the basis of the London East End staple, jellied eels, had to be imported from the Netherlands.
Cockney classic, jellied eels
If fish and chips is the archetypical British dish, jellied eels is the most typical London dish. I have to admit I have a troubled relationship with eels. They are fish snakes to me, but they are common in countries such Denmark, Japan and England. Jellied eels have sustained the London population through troubled times like WW2, and sales has even soared the last years. Jellied eels is made by boiling pieces of eel with vinegar and spices, turning into a jellylike texture once cold. Today jellied eels is found at Tesco.
According to Time Out Waterloo Bridge has one of the best views of London. It sure gives a view of landmarks both up and down the river. But do look downwards. Interesting sights can be found under the bridge, such as the South Bank Centre Book Market, not to mention the cultural giant almost hugging the bridge, South Bank Centre.
What looks like a massive complex of concrete hides a leading arts centre. In 1951 while rationing was still a fact, The Festival of Britain was arranged to celebrate the recovery of the nation in the wake of WW2 with the The Royal Festival Hall built for the opening. A variety of restaurants is also part of the complex, such as British Canteen or Mexican at Wahaca Southbank. The latter is a recycled restaurants consisting of eight containers with river views.
No matter where you look it is hard to avoid seeing the London Eye. The trip with the ferris wheel takes 30 minutes with an elevation of 135 meters above ground. London Eye was the highest viewpoint in London until the skyscraper The Shard opened in 2013, with an observatory deck 245 meters above ground. Next to the Eye lies Jubilee Gardens where there is a nice playground for children.
Last trend on the plate
Allow me to derail from the topic for one moment. Every time I am in London new restaurants are popping up, competing for the best cocktail, the best burger, the most trendy food concept. In Time Out I found out how the street I just visited to eat at a family-friendly Indian restaurant, now saw the opening of the Peruvian restaurant Lima Floral. Oh well. Peruvian food is currently the hottest food in London and a pisco bar is soon to open in Oslo too. Another newcomer on the London food scene is Tincan, a pop-up restaurant serving only tinned fish.
A walk on the south side
From Waterloo Bridge it is 1,6 kilometres (0,6 miles) to Borough Market along the river. While you on the north side of the river has to walk with traffic next to you, there are only sights here. One of them has a birch forest and a tall chimney. Tate Modern opened its doors in 2000 in the former Bankside Power Station. This is the world’s most visited art gallery, and with the exception of some exhibits entrance is free. I think few galleries have been so significant in bringing art to the masses as Tate Modern. Moreover one of London’s worst kept secret is the stunning view across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral from the café and restaurant on the 6th floor.
St. Paul’ Cathedral
Few churches can match the entrance. Few churches have been such a symbol of hope. Few churches have been that lucky. Alongside Tate Modern the Millennium Bridge crosses River Thames towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral, which was built around 1700, became a beacon of hope during WW2. It is called The Second Great Fire of London, the blitz during two Christmas days in 1940. The Great Fire of London was a terrible fire in 1666 that destroyed St. Paul’s predecessor. The second great fire was induced by war. Nazi-Germany dropped more than 100 000 bombs on London on 29th and 30th of December resulting in a devastating firestorm. To make matters worse the bombing was timed to coincide with a low tide on the River Thames.
Winston Churchill commanded St. Paul’s Cathedral to be rescued at all cost. Bombs were raining on the cathedral and one of them started to melt the lead in the dome before it rolled onward to the Stone Gallery and was extinguished. On one of the most iconic British photos from WW2 the dome of St. Paul’s is surrounded by smoke and ruins. In 1965 Churchill was buried in the cathedral he once fought for.
St. Paul’s Cathedral lies in the City, the oldest part of London settled by the Romans 50 AD in what they called Londinium. The Romans also built a bridge across the River Thames near present London Bridge. Later on the south bank, outside the jurisdiction of the city of London, turned into a red light district with brothels, prisons and theatres. It is no coincidence the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe is situated here. This was the first theater district of London.
The Clink Prison
After Shakespeare’s Globe the footpath leaves the river heading towards the Anchor Bankside, an old pub dating back to the 17th and 18th century. This is a classic pub with fish and chips and mash and pie. The street continues under a railway construction giving the impression of the dark alleys of Medieval London. And in a dark time, this was a dark place. A pillory stood on the bankside where the Anchor Bankside is now and one of the most notorious prisons, Clink Prison, was located here. The prison is today a museum with a collection of torture devices each speaking the stories about the destiny of the prisoners. If torture did not kill you, illness would. Earlier River Thames was much wider than now and the prison was thus flooded with sewage.
London Bridge was also a place of death. In the 12th century the head of William Wallace, Braveheart, was put on a spike at London Bridge, and the dead bodies of pirates and prisoners were displayed in iron cages in prominent places such as London Bridge. The tradition of displaying dead bodies in iron cages called gibbets were not abolished in Britain until 1832.
The next espresso
Right next to Clink Prison Museum lies an upscale burger chain, a few metres away Starbucks. Do the coffee tourists know the history they are walking through on their way to the next espresso? London is an unrelenting mix of beauty and ugly, historical and shining new, poverty and filthy rich, greasy and gourmet. I am also a coffee tourist with one aim in mind, getting to Borough Market and Monmouth Coffee. On my way I pass by The Golden Hind, a replica of Sir Francis Drakes’ ship and Southwark Cathedral, the oldest gothic building in London.
If you picture a quant and quiet market you will be disappointed. Borough Market is chaotic and noisy, thanks to its location under the railway construction. It is also London’s oldest market spanning a 1000 year history. Among the stalls try different types of fudge, sour Bramley apples or scotch eggs with the funkiest sweet potato fries I have ever tasted. Several nice restaurants is also part of the market experience, such as Roast for British meat, Tapas Brindisa for tapas or Wright Brothers Oyester and Porter House for seafood. Or go for the coffee right across the street at Monmouth Coffee. While I drink my flat white at Monmouth, I read how fewer Londoners can afford to live in the capital. 1 out of 4 consider moving out, becoming a post-Londoner, due to the cost of living.
Apple orchard (makes 4)
This is my homage to London, the world’s cocktail capital. Inspired by the Waterloo Sun cocktail at The Cut Bar and because we are in the midst of the wonderful apple season, I have made my own version. This is an aromatic apple cocktail flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon, a cocktail with a London kick. If you make it without alcohol, use 50 cl syrup and 70 cl apple juice.
1/4 vanilla pod
200 ml water
1/4 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp sugar
good apple juice (e.g. cloudy apple)
1. For the syrup: Split the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place seeds and pod in a pan with the water, sugar and cinnamon stick. (Keep the rest of the vanilla pod in a jam jar with some sugar). Bring to boil and remove from the heat. Leave to cool and flavours to infuse. Add the juice of two limes.
2. For one cocktail you need 30 cl rum, 50 cl syrup and 50 cl apple juice. Serve with lots of ice cubes and a slice of apple.
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Music: Nightcall with London Grammar