Off The Tourist Track: Night London
Autumn in London is pukka this year – crisp, cold and clear-skied, so the perfect time for a wander. Having recovered from the first norovirus of the season (every year I’m like the canary down the mine, first to fall so that you can get out of the way), we bundled up and set off, incidentally passing a local pub which has followed the old Victorian tradition of burying boozers in greenery. I can’t think what it was called as the ivy had grown over the sign.
As we passed through King’s Cross Station I was surprised to hear ‘The Dam Busters’ March’ being played by guards raising money for Poppy Day. I still approve of wearing poppies to honour the dead however they died – despite the annual obligatory op-ed piece in the Guardian, which never manages to add anything new to the argument. Perhaps that piece of music also sticks with me from childhood memories of listening to ‘Uncle Mac’ on the radio.
We walked to Leicester Square, where Agatha Christie’s snazzy memorial now stands – seen here from both sides. I guess that along with Poirot and Marple (Wot, no Tuppence or Harley Quinn?) the books being honoured here are ‘Death On The Nile’ and ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, representing her lives in Egypt and England. Note the mousetrap at the top centre. 86 was a good life.
Onwards by tube, sarf of the river to Southwark, which has retained more of its quirky character than Norf London, including the demolition of the old alleyways running beside the railway arches, to be replaced by – new alleyways. They run across the great fan of tracks that spread out from London Bridge Station.
We headed for one of several excellent theatres down there. Earlier in the week I had been to the Union Theatre to see a panto-ish seasonal version of Moby Dick, all expense spared, but performed with tons of energy and involving the kind of audience participation (You may be forced to play the Pequod and later get to dance with the ship’s crew!) that sends my friends fleeing.
Now we headed to the funky Southwark Theatre to see ‘Side Show’, about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. I love these small damp-smelling places tucked under railway arches where you can hear the trains rumble past during a performance. The productions staged in them have become so polished that they’re really West End standard without the prices. Tourists can enjoy Harry Potter for £200. I saw something better for £15, even though I had to walk across the stage to find my seat.
There’s a lovely ramshackle feel to parts of South London, and always has been. The attention-deficit legacy of having Boris ‘Squirrel!’ Johnson as our Mayor is all around. Sites featuring blank glass penthouses for millionaires are ridiculously sandwiched between Victorian homes with rows of defunct red chimney pots.
The patchwork feel is strongest around the Elephant and Castle, where the grotesque Philishave (the tower block so named because it looks like an old razor) features eco-wind turbines that have never been used because those in the penthouses complained of the noise.
At its foot are council blocks and small homes, lending a feeling that the area has been visited by a feudal overlord. At least the area is cleaner and more pedestrian-friendly than it used to be, even filled with transplanted luxury apartments.
Feeling in need of a lift, we strayed by a cocktail van – an updated version of the kind that reminds me of Tony Hancock stopping for a tea from a chipped mug on the Embankment, to be served by cockney bruiser Arthur Mullard.
Mullard: Wiv or Wivart?
Hancock: With or without what?
Just before midnight, drifting toward the tube (yes, London finally has night tubes) or possibly into one of the more raucous pubs that stay open late around here, we passed a doorway that looked interesting, so ducked in for a nose about. Mercato Metropolitano is a reaction to the larger-scale food industry, taking everything back to small local produce.
Inside the vast market were hundreds of people having meals and drinks to chilled sounds, along with a pop-up cinema and a band. South London is peppered with these places, but in North London the property prices are too high to support such venues. Hostelries and markets stay open later South, and there are enough liminal spaces to host them.
We were now too far away to ever walk home. London can catch out tourists who assume that everything is walkable in an hour. Also, heading from South to North means a slow but gruellingly steady gradient that requires stamina.
The Night Tube has these rather cute carriages at the moment, and seems full of upbeat, slightly merry passengers of all ages, not the raging drunks that scaremongering tabloids tried to frighten their readers with. London’s packed autumn and Christmas seasons make up for the early darkness, and there are tons of events which are free or very reasonably priced. I’m moving house tomorrow but will try another route later in the week.