Sunday, January 3, 2010

South Bank of the Thames

Steve here - a quick post about our adventures walking along the South Bank of the Thames River before I'm off to bed to get some sleep for our overnight in the Cotswolds tomorrow.

We started the afternoon at the Borough Market at the base of the London Bridge, which was for a very long time the only bridge in London, making the market a critical trading post. It was the beating heart of London for quite a long time and still remains right in the thick of things. These days, the market is chock full of local merchants, organic farmers, and artisans, making it one of the best (and perhaps most crowded) farmer's markets in London. We sampled a huge number of cheeses from local farms and Sophie very much enjoyed all the free cookie samples.

Moving along the river from the market, we ran into a number of historical bits and pieces. The boat on the right is a full-size recreation of the Golden Hinde, which was Sir Francis Drake's boat (he was knighted aboard it by Queen Elizabeth I in 1581). It seemed remarkably small by today's standards, especially considering the many miles it traveled.

We also popped into the Southwark Cathedral, which has been around since at least 1086, when it was noted in the famous Doomsday Book survey. It was a stunning cathedral not for its ostentatious trappings, but for its history. John Gower, one of the originators of the novel format, is buried there, along with Edmund Shakespeare (Willy's brother). William Shakespeare lived in the church for a short time and reportedly did some of his writing there.

We also saw this random-looking wall, which, as it turns out, was part of Winchester Palace, home of the powerful Bishops of Winchester. It was one of the most important buildings in medieval London. And who knew, they even had a bowling alley, tennis court and pleasure gardens there (exactly what a pleasure garden is, no one was able to tell me...)

I love seeing these pieces of physical history. I feel more connected to the historical force of the place by being able to touch the stones, or sit in the same church that people have been coming to for over 1,000 years.

And one more fun little tidbit - we got a chance to see the Clink Museum, which is possibly the oldest prison in London. It was not a particularly nice place as you can imagine and is where all prisons have gotten the moniker "The Clink."

Walking a little farther down the waterfront, we came across the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare et al put up the money to build this theatre in 1599. It burned down once and was demolished once, but was rebuilt after both. We tried to weasel our way in for a look but there was a show on so we were turned down. We groused and they looked at us like we were being annoying US tourists, which after all we were, so we took a hint and kept on walking. If we all look a little chilly in these pictures that's because it was freezing cold and quite windy. If you plan on visiting in January, heavy coats, gloves, and hats are a must.

The next bit of adventure was a stroll across the Millenium Footbridge, which leads to St. Paul's Cathedral. It's space-agey and very fun to walk across because there are sections where the supports are out of sight and you feel like you are suspended in air on a little walkway above a rushing river. Neat view. Funny story - two days after the bridge opened in 2000, an event was held there during which many people walked across at the same time. All those legs managed to hit the right harmonic frequency so that the bridge started swaying widely from side to side. It had to be shut down and worked on for another two years before it was reopened in 2002. Ouch.
The Tate Modern is at the other end of the bridge, where we did not go but hear is quite cool as well. We did a little tromping around right in front of St. Paul's on Peter's Hill, which I have no idea of the history of, but enjoyed watching Peter, Sophie, and Sarah pretend to climb. (The hill is about 3 feet).


Our final bit of adventure was to continue our stroll back over the bridge and down the waterway. (As I mentioned and you can see on Sarah's face - we were frigid by this point - still quite cheery, but chilled right through). The South Bank has been redeveloped over the past 15 or so years and is beautiful now, full of that mix of old and new styles that London does so well. One of my favorite spots was a stretch under an overpass that had been completely spray painted with graffitti. There were ramps set up in random places and teenagers on stunt bikes and skateboards tearing around, hopping around and generally impressing the crowd. Sophie was so amazing she nearly was run down several times trying to get close enough to watch. Overall, an amazing day along the river and an area of town we highly recommend spending an afternoon in.

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