The Thames has over two hundred bridges crossing it, which is remarkable given that for much of its history, there was just the one – London Bridge. One of the most interesting of these bridges is perhaps Waterloo Bridge. It may not be the most glamorous looking, but in this week’s quick installment of “Love Letters To London”, I shall explain why I’m particularly fond of it.
The original Waterloo Bridge (known as the Strand Bridge before completion) was built on this stretch of the river, now situated between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, in 1817, opened as a toll bridge. Its history remains chequered, as during the 1840s, it had become a popular destination for suicide attempts, a reputation that seems to have tragically lingered. In 1878, the toll booth was removed, and people could pass freely across, but in the 1920s, the bridge closed – the structure was becoming increasingly dangerous.
Demolished, plans were afoot to rebuild it, with new technologies to make it safer and longer-lasting. It was also clad in Portland stone, which has the remarkable ability to clean itself when it rains. Despite the start of World War II, the bridge was partly opened in 1942, and completely in 1945, although it holds the dubious distinction of being the only bridge in London damaged by bombs during the Blitz.
It also holds another remarkable distinction – one far less dubious – in that it was built primarily by women. With men all at war, the work force was mostly female and so it has gained the sometimes title of The Ladies’ Bridge in honour of the women who worked on it. My girlfriend likes to acknowledge also the fact that it remains the only London bridge to have been completed on time and under budget.
History, however, seems to have largely obscured this fact. Despite an announcement being made at its completion that thanked all the men who worked hard on its construction, it seems that generally women’s displacement from history in this area was because the records were lost, and not through malice or sexism, but one does wonder.
The most thrilling aspect of the 370 metre bridge to me though lies beneath it, rather than on it. Under its final arch on the Southbank sits a book market, one of the most delightful in the country, if not the world. Because they’re sheltered by the bridge, come rain or shine the outdoor book market is open for business, selling second hand and antique books of every genre imaginable. I’ve picked up so many bargains over the years, as well as discovering some genuine treasures.
So that’s Waterloo Bridge, a quick run down of one of the Thames’s many crossings. I daresay more will be forthcoming – we’ve got a lot of time and plenty to get through.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Karen asked if I could help her and her husband plot a route around London to see the sights. I went one better and provided a fully illustrated guide to every major site in London that was completely walk-able. With no idea how long it would take to walk, or even if it was all that feasible, they set off with it. Fortunately, it worked, and they were able to see everything they wanted.
As such, I provide the same route here for anyone who wants to see as much of London as possible in one day. I’ve posted a walk before, but this one has more of a goal. All you have to do is start at London Bridge station…
Head up above ground and under the Shard, and go down St Thomas Street or London Bridge Street. Go towards Borough Market, which looks like a strange sort of greenhouse. Pass through the market, heading towards the Thames. You will pass Southwark Cathedral and then arrive at the Golden Hinde. Go down Clink Street and you’ll emerge on the side of the Thames again, between a Nando’s and a pub called The Anchor.
Walk under Southwark Bridge, and opposite Bankside Pier is Shakespeare’s Globe, the only thatched building that’s been allowed in London since the Great Fire in 1666. Next is the Millennium Bridge, famously destroyed by Death Eaters but now back in one piece. This is in front of the Tate Modern. On the other side of the bridge you will see St Paul’s Cathedral, but don’t go there yet, I’m factoring it in for later.
Go under Blackfriars Bridge and you’ll pass The Coat and Badge pub. Keep on walking past the National Theatre and then past the next two bridges (the Thames has over two hundred bridges, as well as twenty-seven tunnels, six ferries and a cable car) and you’ll come to the London Eye. The Jubilee Gardens are nice here. At Westminster Bridge, cross over the Thames at last! This should have taken about an hour so far, not counting time to stop for photos.
Here you will pass Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster where the government are busy messing up the country. Just past this, you’ll see Parliamentary Square which is full of statues of famous politicians. On your left is Westminster Abbey.
This next bit has been a bit trickier to try and fit in without going back on yourself, so I think this works as the most sensible method. Turn right before Parliamentary Square and you should be on Whitehall. Up here on the left is the entrance to Downing Street. There’s also usually some guardsmen up here too looking very severe. Walk the length of Whitehall and then you’ll reach Trafalgar Square at the end. Don’t cross over to it yet, you’ll be coming back.
Turn into the next street on the left, under Admiralty Arch, and go down The Mall – it’s the street painted red. Follow this right down and (you’ll have seen what’s at the end) you will be outside Buckingham Palace. Alternatively, you can walk through St James’s Park on your left to the same destination once through the arch.
With Buckingham Palace behind you, on the left is Green Park. Walk through here until you reach Piccadilly, and then turn right. You should pass Green Park Station. On this road you will pass The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason (grocers to the Royal family), my favourite bookshops; Hatchard’s and the flagship Waterstone’s store, and you will emerge into Piccadilly Circus. Keep going through Coventry Street and you’ll find yourself in Leicester Square, home to cinemas, restaurants and M&M’s World.
Carry on through Leicester Square and then turn right into Charing Cross Road. Keep on down this road and you will come out at Trafalgar Square. When you’re done here, your next stop is St Paul’s, but there are two options.
ONE: Go to Charing Cross tube station, get the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus and change to the Central line to St Paul’s. This will take about ten minutes.
TWO: Walk along Duncannon Street and then into the Strand, the curve of Aldwych, down Fleet Street, and Ludgate Hill. This will take about half an hour, but takes in the Royal Courts of Justice, as well as Ye Olde Chesire Cheese, one of London’s oldest pubs.
Either method you choose, you’ll arrive at St Paul’s Cathedral. Opposite this is the geometrically angular new shopping centre One New Change, which is fairly unremarkable but there are gorgeous views from the cocktail bar on the roof, which you can get into without having to buy anything.
I promise, you’re nearly done, just a few more things to show you.
If now facing towards the river (you should be able to see Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern on the other side of the river), turn left into Cannon Street. At the end, turn riverwards down into King William Street then into Monument Street to see Monument, built to acknowledge the Great Fire of London. You can climb it, but it’s narrow and tough on the legs. Out of Monument Street, you’ll come to Lower Thames Street and keep going left. After another fifteen minutes or so, you reach the Tower of London.
Go down to the riverside, then cross Tower Bridge. Turn right off the end here and you’ll pass City Hall (Boris’s office) and now you’re on the home stretch back to London Bridge! Walk along this side of the river and you’ll pass HMS Belfast, and at the end of this run, you’re back at London Bridge station.
Once you’ve gone full circle, you should have seen every major tourist spot in central London. There’s still some debate about how long this takes – Karen veered off at one point, and I’ve not added up the different sections (writers, infamously, cannot do maths) – but my only advice would be to wear comfortable shoes. This is a long walk but hopefully it’s worth it.
If you feel inspired to try this walk for yourself, please let me know by commenting and tell me how it worked for you and what you particularly liked along the route. I hope this will provide a crash course in London for many of you.
Anyone who follows my other blog, the book reviewing Fell From Fiction, will know that I am a sucker for anything Agatha Christie wrote. It came to my attention this week that, in honour of the 125th anniversary celebrations of her life, there was an exhibition called “Agatha Christie: Unfinished Portrait” on in London so I naturally dropped everything and had to go see it.
As soon as I arrived at London Bridge though, someone thought it amusing to begin pouring the entire contents of the Pacific over the city and with only a small umbrella as shelter, I became steadily more and more sodden as I walked along Southbank in the direction of Bankside Gallery. Eventually, with only fifty or so metres to go, I succumbed to temptation and disappeared into the Tate Modern for a drink on their top floor bar. Alright, it might have been unnecessary, but the wine was good, it had stopped raining by the time I’d finished, and I got this lovely picture up there.
Bankside Gallery is a small, one-room gallery with a gift shop off to one side stocked with books about art and artists, as well as the usual tourist trappings. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside, but instead whipped out my Moleskine and took notes on what was inside.
The exhibition has been set up with the help of Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, her only living relative, who has delved deep into the family’s personal effects to draw up previously unseen photographs of the Queen of Crime. Displayed all around the walls along with a timeline of her life and works, and quotes from her autobiography, private letters and notebooks, they form a version of the writer that few people ever knew.
Most people, from what I can gather, seem to think of her as an old woman hunched over her typewriter churning out mystery after mystery, but the reality seems very different indeed and the gallery goes a long way to showing that she had a fascinating and varied life, a joyful childhood, a good sense of humour and never actually had any ambitions of being a writer.
In the gallery, I discover that she actually wanted to be a pianist or a singer, but wasn’t good enough at either. She became a nurse during the First World War, and that is what made her so knowledgeable about poisons and why so many of her characters were killed by them. It details what everyone knows about her, that she once went missing for eleven days, and gives an insight into the breakdown of her first marriage and the beginnings of the second, one that was certainly a lot happier.
It transpires that she didn’t smoke or drink, but not because she didn’t want to. She looked on enviously at those who enjoyed those vices, but was unable to appreciate them herself. It is testament to her success that she is the only female playwright to ever have three shows on in the West End at the same time (The Mousetrap, Spider’s Web and Witness for the Prosecution), and when she died, every theatre in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour. At 85 when she died, she didn’t fear death, but was merely interested in finding out more about it.
At the centre of the gallery sit three things that, for me, were the most incredible items here. First is a painting of Christie by Oskar Kokoschka that normally never leaves Prichard’s house. The second is a rare recording of her voice – Christie never did a television interview and didn’t care for speeches – in which she discusses that she, like every other writer, suffered from writer’s block, and knew the pain of the right words coming when you were miles from anywhere to write them down. And thirdly, next to some first editions of her early books, sits her Remington typewriter, the very machine that produced so many wonderful works of literature.
Christie isn’t for everyone, but if you go to the gallery, your opinion is likely to change regarding her anyway. She enjoyed life, hugely. She liked roller-skating, tennis and is believed to have been the first English person to ever surf standing up, something she brought back from a holiday in Honolulu. The exhibition is only on in Bankside until September 6th, so I urge you to go along this week if you get a chance.
I’m aware that this entry has been more of a potted history of the life of Agatha Christie rather than about London itself, but the point of this blog is to explore all aspects of London and what is London without its people? Agatha Christie may have been born in Torquay and died in Oxfordshire, but in the interim she spent a lot of time in London, lived in Chelsea, produced numerous plays for the West End and set a lot of her books here. I’ll cover these on another day.
Once more, I suggest you hurry along to the Bankside Gallery and explore the life of this amazing woman. And if you can’t make this one, I am sure that another exhibition will be open soon enough that will entice you to one of the most charming galleries in the city.