London Corners: The South Bank
Hardly a corner, and yet in summer the South Bank now holds all sorts of surprises. For years the Thameside area was neglected – it had a power station at one end, in what had long been a dangerously rough neighbourhood, and the walkway passed beneath several dark bridges. Right into the noughties it was not a safe place to be at night.
One of the greatest tragedies to occur there in my lifetime was the awful death of David Morley, the manager of the gay pub the Admiral Duncan. In 1999 the pub was horrifically blown up by a nail bomb; Morley survived and helped the others to safety (there’s a memorial still in the ceiling of the pub). He was walking home across Hungerford Bridge one night and was set upon by a gang of teenagers including a 15 year-old girl, who beat him to death.
The attack on Morley was one of eight that the group carried out in the early hours; they had decided amongst themselves that they would attack people including ‘tramps, druggies or just people on the street.’ In one of those coincidences that seem barely believable, Morley had survived the bomb to become the only fatality in the gang’s rampage, which was caught on CCTV. A criminal family from the council flats situated alongside the river routinely hurled homophobic abuse at people, including me. They were eventually moved out as the area was cleaned up and made safe.
The south bank had long been rough compared to the refined north. Why?
It had been slower to develop because the north part was in long hours of sunlight, and the deep channel of the Thames ran alongside it, encouraging ships to dock there. During the Middle Ages then north developed as a place of entertainment outside the formal regulation of the City of London on the north bank. It included theatres, sporting events and bear-baiting, and although the south also housed theatres, it was actually zoned as an area where thieves and prostitutes were safe from prosecution.
By the 18th century the more genteel entertainments of pleasure gardens developed. The shallow bank and mud flats of the south were used for industries like leather-tanning and soap-making (both of which stank) and the riverside was cut off from the public access.
When the London County Council needed a new hall (built between 1917 and 1922 on the south bank near Lower Marsh) the construction returned part of the Thames to public use. Then in 1951 the Festival Of Britain caused a large part of the area to be redeveloped.
It won its capital letters as part of the Festival’s promotion. The legacy of the festival was controversial, with buildings and exhibits demolished to make way for Jubilee Gardens, while the Royal Festival Hall and Queen’s Walk appeared. With the addition of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the home of the National Theatre, the NFT, the restored Globe theatre, the Hayward and finally Tate Modern taking over the power station, the transformation was complete.
There was one more addition to be made; the London Eye appeared, and the Jubilee Gardens were beautifully made over (quite recently).
For years you hadn’t been able to get so much as a cup of tea along the river. Now it blossomed, and Mayor Ken Livingstone made sure that access was available to all by making the South Bank wheelchair-friendly (I had cause to give thanks for this as I regularly took my mother out along there).
And with the new buildings came a new, gentler sort of raffishness. A summer festival opened with Udderbelly (A giant upturned purple cow) and Wonderground (a circus tent) along with pop-up pubs and bars, while venues like Concrete and other drinking areas developed messily overgrown gardens where you could sit with friends on a summer’s night. The South Bank Centre, long hated for its brutalist architecture, finally became well-used and much-loved. Side-streets have filled with new markets and bars where once was just waste ground.
Apart from the roof terraces and hidden gardens other pop-up venues have appeared – I was at a free-running event there on Friday night, where a silent concert took place (with headphones), and I was back again on Sunday night to see Weimar chanteuse Meow-Meow in cabaret (it takes a brave performer to crowd-surf across the auditorium in the middle of a song!)
The oldest Thameside house still exists beside the Globe (there’s an excellent book about it called ‘The House By The Thames’ by Gillian Tindall), and my favourite drinking/dining spot The Swan is still hidden in plain sight, overlooked by tourists.
In the wake of all this comes the regeneration of the North Side, which suffered a blow to its former reputation when the Thatcherite 1980s allowed companies to build right down to the river’s edge and deny the public access to the walkways. The few ancient pubs which existed there were shut, and the Mermaid Theatre became a business conference centre.
Gradually this is now changing, and perhaps one day the North Bank will compete once more with its neighbour.
Above, from Hungerford Bridge last night, middle – ‘The Roof’ pop-up LIFT event, below – Meow-Meow demands a Selfie.