New Views, New Perspectives
Bermondsey and the Southwark are fast becoming the new place to explore in London.
At Southwark, you can also as easily learn about the history of British textile and fashion as you can about glass blowing.
There’s a TED talk by Taiye Selasi called “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local” and London would be one of the places I like to think I’m as good as a local. I spent several months living there in the ‘80s, and have made it a habit to visit the city once a year over the past couple of decades. I feel I know the inner city, the museums, walks, neighbourhoods pretty well – but this last trip gave me a fresh perspective on a new “old London”.
First, I saw it from a new elevation. I call it “The Great Reveal” – that moment when you insert your keycard into the slot of your room at Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London and the curtains pull back automatically to reveal the splendid vista before your very eyes.
With The Thames at the centre, Tower Bridge to my right, buildings on both banks, I marvel at the city which, in its 2,000 years of existence, has seen every kind of drama known to mankind – plague, fires, murders, royal intrigues, war – and has continued to be shaped by current developments.
The hotel sits in the middle of the London Borough of Southwark. Once a notorious area teeming with all sorts of criminals (even Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was set here), it has seen a renaissance in the last decade and is now re-imagined as one of the city's coolest neighbourhood. You’re more likely to meet an artist or fashion designer today than Fagin or the Artful Dodger.
Right next to the hotel is London Bridge Station. Built in 1836, the fourth busiest railway terminus in the country brings 54 million commuters to the city every year and is undergoing a major redevelopment. Once completed, it will make this bustling neighbourhood even busier.
I took a two-hour walking tour of Bermondsey Street and its surroundings with a Blue Badge guide. Not only have I learnt about the history, as well as the evolution and development of the area, but also met café owners, glass blowers and artists who have made this part of London their home.
The famous Borough Market serves as a good place to start and end the tour. Grab a cuppa, dunk your scone in it and listen to the guide as she explains the history of the area – huge parts of this neighbourhood were destroyed during World War II, which has given rise to a peculiar mix of old and new architecture.
On Bermondsey Street, the warehouses which used to store goods like butter, sugar, tea and coffee became disused because the Thames just wasn’t deep enough. The area then became redundant and, with the war, came even more destruction. It also used to be the home of the leather tanneries in the 19th century, so you can imagine how it must have smelt in those days.
I found the St Mary Magdalen Church, built in 1690, particularly charming. It is the only building in the area that escaped bombings.
“Perhaps it was unimportant enough to escape,” said our guide. The Bermondsey Beer Mile has also become the place to do a craft beer pub crawl and teems with life on Saturday nights.
The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) programme kicked off in the 1980s by order of the late Margaret Thatcher and Southwark is one of the newest areas to come to life under this initiative. What I like is that, despite the development, the old has been kept and preserved so there is more “old” than “new”, which is the complete opposite of where I live.
Pop into Horseshoe Inn (built in 1897, it’s over a century old) for a good old-fashioned pint. If it isn’t past midday yet, have a cup of artisanal coffee and Ecuadorian chocolate at any of the new cafes in the area. The old Watch House now houses a quaint little cake and coffee shop. In the old days, this was where a guard would watch the cemetery for “body snatchers”, organ-trading being a lucrative trade back then. Now, this is where you can buy something as random as posh dog collars or jars of homemade vanilla and rhubarb jam.
At Southwark, you can also as easily learn about the history of British textile and fashion as you can about glass blowing. We walked into the White Cube and were dazzled by abstract lighting installations in what used to be a warehouse. Nearby is Tate Modern, where I happened upon “The World Goes Pop” exhibition and explored history through the eyes of pop culture artists.
Just a short walk from Tate Modern is Shakespeare’s Globe, the complex which includes the reconstructed Globe Theatre and Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Shakespeare, too, is being re-imagined – Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent Hamlet debut at the Barbican attracted hordes of fans – never mind they are more into him than the mad Danish king, at least they’ve watched Shakespeare now.
Modern interpretations of timeless classics are vital in opening up old worlds to new audiences. This is why I believe Shangri-La’s venture is an important addition to a historic city like London. Its vantage point offers visitors a new perspective on an old classic, and its presence helps breathe new life into an old neighbourhood that deserves more attention from tourists.