Today’s perambulations are mainly about the riverfronts either side of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge with a particular focus on the South Bank though, as you can see, we do venture a bit further south of the river in the latter stages. It’s an area I’m mostly more than familiar with as, when I could be arsed to walk, I passed through here on my way from Waterloo to an office near St Pauls for many years.
Before we kick off however here’s a bit of bonus material relating to the previous post in which we featured the London Eye. As coincidence would have it, just a couple of weeks after that walk I found myself actually aboard the Eye (for the first time in many years)courtesy of a family visit – and here are the pics from on high.
Right, back to the business in hand. We start out this time from Waterloo Station once again and having crossed York Road make our way along Concert Hall Approach towards the Royal Festival Hall. The RFH was built in 1951 as part of that year’s Festival of Britain. As London’s new main concert hall it would be the only permanent structure amongst the temporary pavilions and constructions on the Festival’s south bank site. The architects were Sir Robert Matthew and Dr Leslie Martin and the hall took 18 months to build at a cost of £2 million. Initially it was run by the LCC and then its successor the GLC but on the demise of the latter in 1986 responsibility was devolved to the Arts Council. Two years later the building was granted Grade 1 listed status.
Following a public appeal for assistance with the recovery of lost artworks, Peter Laszlo Peri’s Sunbathers sculpture, which was originally installed outside Waterloo underground station during the Festival, was retrieved from the garden of the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, restored and re-hung in the foyer of the RFH. That was in 2017 and it was originally only intended to stay there for one summer – but, as you can see, it’s still in situ. The bust of Nelson Mandela outside the western entrance to the hall was commissioned by Ken Livingstone’s GLC, sculpted by Ian Walters and initially unveiled in 1985 by the then ANC leader Oliver Tambo. Unfortunately, following what was described at the time as “politically-motivated vandalism” the sculpture had to be re-cast and was re-installed in 1988.
The “brutalist” Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room were added to the South Bank site in 1967 adjacent to the RFH. These smaller venues were designed to play host to chamber orchestras and other smaller musical ensembles. Then in 1968 the Hayward Gallery, named after the late Sir Isaac Hayward, the then leader of the London County Council, was opened. The gallery’s first exhibition was a major retrospective of the paintings of Henri Matisse. All three venues were re-opened in 2018 after a two year refurbishment programme. The slideshow below includes shots of the Lee Bul exhibition that was showing at the Hayward when this walk took place.
The area beneath the concrete walkway joining the RFH with the QE Hall (known as the Undercroft) has, for decades now, been used as a semi-officially sanctioned skateboard and BMX park. After fending off the latest threat to close and redevelop the site the users of the Undercroft have recently won a £700,000 grant from City Hall to enable the park to be extended and improved.
From the Hayward Gallery we ascend the steps up on to Waterloo Bridge. The current bridge, built to a design of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (the creator of the red telephone box if you remember), was “officially opened” in 1942. Not great timing as you can imagine and somewhat ironically this was the only bridge across the Thames to suffer damage from the German bombing campaign. As a consequence it was only fully completed in 1945. The bridge is sometimes referred to colloquially as the Ladies Bridge due to the fact that when the Irish labourers who had been working on its construction went back to Ireland at the outbreak of WW2 they were largely replaced by women.
Having crossed the bridge we head east along the Victoria Embankment towards Blackfriars Bridge. In the previous post we noted that the benches on the Albert Embankment use a swan motif in their metalwork supports while their counterparts on the Victoria Embankment incorporate camels and sphinxes into their design. And here’s the evidence.
About half way along this stretch of the Embankment is HQS (formerly HMS) Wellington which acts as the Livery Hall for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners (Merchant Seamen in other words). The vessel is open for boarding at the moment due to an ongoing exhibition on the role of mercantile shipping in WW1; which was fortunate because as soon as I’d got below decks the heavens opened. HMS Wellington is the last surviving convoy escort ship from the Second World War. She was built at Devonport Dockyard in 1934 and initially served in the Pacific mainly on station in New Zealand and China. When war broke out she was fitted with anti-aircraft guns and loaded with depth charges for use against submarines and went on to conduct convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic. She shared in the destruction of one enemy U boat and was involved in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk. The Master Mariners, who had been given their Royal Charter in 1926, acquired the Wellington in 1947.
A short way further on is the monument erected in 1935 to celebrate King George V’s silver jubilee which I suspect most people walk past without giving a second glance. Much like…
And so on to Blackfriars Bridge which in its present incarnation was opened in November 1869 by Queen Victoria (hence the statue). It was built to a design of Joseph Cubitt and is comprised of five wrought iron arches. On the piers of the bridge are stone carvings of water birds by sculptor John Birnie Philip and the ends of the bridge are shaped like a pulpit in a reference to Black Friars.It is owned and maintained by the Bridge House Estates, a charitable trust overseen by the City of London Corporation. Blackfriars Bridge became internationally notorious in June 1982, when the body of Roberto Calvi, a former chairman of Italy’s largest private bank, was found hanging from one of its arches with five bricks and around $14,000 in three different currencies in his pockets. Calvi’s death was initially treated as suicide, but he was on the run from Italy accused of embezzlement and in 2002 forensic experts concluded that he had been murdered by the Mafia, to whom he was indebted.
As you walk south across the bridge the view is dominated by No.1 Blackfriars a 52 storey tower comprising 274 private flats that was completed in 2018. The site was formerly occupied by the headquarters of Sainsbury’s but had lain empty at least throughout all those years I walked past it. Then no sooner had I retired than construction started.
Having reached the southern end of the bridge we turn right past the Doggett’s Coat and Badge pub. Named after the world’s oldest rowing race, contested between apprentice Thames watermen since 1715, Doggett’s is one of only a handful of riverside hostelries in central London and, as such, does very well for itself.
We proceed along the river passing in front of Sea Containers House and the Oxo Tower. The latter was originally constructed as a power station to supply electricity to the Royal Mail post office towards the end of the 19th century. In the 1920’s it was acquired by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, manufacturers of Oxo cubes, for conversion into a cold store. The building was largely rebuilt to an Art Deco design by company architect Albert Moore between 1928 and 1929. Much of the original power station was demolished, but the river facing facade was retained and extended. Liebig wanted to include a tower featuring illuminated signs advertising the name of their product. When permission for the advertisements was refused, the tower was built with four sets of three vertically-aligned windows, which “coincidentally” happened to be in the sequential shapes of a circle, a cross and another circle.
Continuing west we pass by Bernie Spain Gardens (named after Bernadette Spain, a local housing campaigner in the 1980’s), Gabriel’s Wharf and the rear of the IBM and ITV HQ buildings before arriving at the National Theatre. After many years of debate and lobbying the NT was founded in 1963 and was based at the Old Vic until its new purpose-built home was opened in 1976. This latest addition to the South Bank’s modernist skyline, designed by architects Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley and structural engineers Flint & Neill, divided opinion; Sir John Betjeman was an unlikely fan but, less surprisingly, Prince Charles referred to it as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. That was in 1988, the year that Sir Peter Hall relinquished the post of Artistic Director having succeeded Sir Laurence Olivier in that role in 1973. The building houses three separate theatre spaces, the Olivier Theatre, the Lyttleton Theatre and the Dorfman Theatre (formerly the Cottesloe). It’s been Grade II listed since 1994 and regularly appears simultaneously on publicly-surveyed lists of London most-loved and most-hated buildings.
The sculpture above is London Pride by Frank Dobson (1886 – 1963). This was originally exhibited in plaster cast form at the Festival of Britain but after Dobson’s death was re-cast in bronze and in 1987 donated by his wife Mary to be exhibited in front of the National Theatre. Just to the west of this is the statue of Laurence Olivier (as Hamlet) that was unveiled in 2007.
Adjacent to the NT and effectively right underneath Waterloo Bridge is the BFI Southbank (previously known as the National Film Theatre – its cinemas are still called NFT1, 2 & 3). The BFI (British Film Institute) was founded in 1933 and operates as a charity under Royal Charter. The BFI maintains the world’s largest film archive, containing more than 50,000 fiction films, over 100,000 non-fiction titles, and around 625,000 television programmes. In addition to the Southbank site it also runs the nearby London IMAX and the annual London Film Festival each October. The National Film Theatre was initially opened in a temporary building (the Telekinema) at the Festival of Britain and moved to this present location in 1957. In addition to the main three cinemas the building also incorporates the BFI Reuben Library and the Mediatheque which are both free to access. The upper level includes a gallery space which is currently displaying exhibits tying in with the ongoing Working Class Heroes season.
Turning away from the river up past the BFI we arrive at Upper Ground and head back eastward passing, in sequence, the home of the Rambert Ballet Company, the front entrance of the IBM HQ and the ITV London Studios and Tower. The latter were constructed in the early 1970’s, when independent television was still provided by a plethora of separate regional operators, as a new studio complex for London Weekend Television (LWT). It was originally called The South Bank Television Centre (a name that lasted until the early 1990s) and at the time was the most advanced television centre in Europe. LWT was acquired by Granada in 1994 and a decade later Granada was merged into Carlton Communications to form ITV plc. As well as being the main studios for ITV’s entertainment shows the complex has also been used by the BBC and Channel 4 as well as several independent production companies. Good Morning Britain, The Graham Norton Show, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and The Jonathan Ross Show are amongst the shows it has to bear some of the responsibility for. In April 2018 ITV closed the site for 5 years of large-scale redevelopment that will result in the loss of most of the studios space.
Doubling back a bit we head south next down Cornwall Road then turn right to take a trip up and down Doon Street which runs along the back of the Franklin-Wilkins building (named after Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin two of the pioneers who contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA). This is now part of King’s College’s Waterloo Campus but it was built between 1912 and 1915 as a reinforced-concrete headquarters, known as Cornwall House, for Her Majesty’s Stationary Office. However before HMSO could move in the building was requisitioned for use as a military hospital during WW1. As the King George Military Hospital it accommodated, at its height, some 1800 patients on 63 wards. Cornwall House had been built with underground tunnels connecting it to Waterloo Station and these tunnels were used by the hospital to transfer wounded soldiers arriving by train from the Front.
At the junction with Stamford Street we turn left and then take another left up Coin Street back to Upper Ground. Resuming eastward we stop for lunch at the slightly insalubrious but generously-priced House of Crepes at the top of the Gabriel’s Wharf marketplace of “independent eateries and boutiques”. The actual Gabriel’s Wharf building (in the background below) was formerly used as a scenery store by ITV.
We return to Stamford Street via Duchy Street and then take the next left turning, Broadwall, back to Upper Ground. We continue east as far as Bargehouse Street which loops round the back of the actual Bargehouse, a 4-storey former factory building, which is now an exhibition and event space forming part of the OXO Tower Wharf development.
After a quick look at the northern section of Hatfields we end up back by the river courtesy of another stretch of Upper Ground and Marigold Alley. Turning right we revisit the steps up to Doggett’s and then it’s a few paces along Blackfriars Road before the final bit of Upper Ground and Rennie Street return us to Stamford Street. We switch westward briefly before turning south down Paris Gardens and then cutting east through the churchyard of Christ Church Southwark. The first church on this site was built in 1670 bit that sank into the Lambeth Marshes after about seventy years and had to be demolished. Its replacement lasted a bit longer but failed to survive the 1941 bombing. The current building dates from 1959 and has an interesting (and secular) selection of stained glass windows depicting local trades and history.
On the other side of the church we revisit Blackfriars Road and drop south as far as Meymott Street where we take a westerly turn and look in on Colombo Street before using the longer stretch of Hatfields to return to Stamford Street. This building on Meymott Street always caught my eye on those journeys to work on account of its modest art deco stylings but I’ve been unable to find anything out about its history or current situation. Incidentally, Hatfields derives its name from the fact that this area was once used for drying animal skins that were made into hats.
Just around the corner as we turn left onto Stamford Street is the London Nautical School, founded in 1915 as a consequence of the official report into the loss of the Titanic (according to their website though it doesn’t elaborate). Let’s assume it was something to do with the creation of the “nautical ethos” which they still promote to this day.
Another section of Duchy Street is the next turning to the south and this is then linked to the southern section of Coin Street by Aquinas Street. The north side of Aquinas Street consists of a very nice three storey Victorian terrace. If you fancied living here though even a one bedroom flat is listed at more than £550k.
After a final visit to Stamford Street we take the southern section of Cornwall Street down to Theed Street where we make an eastward circuit also involving Whittlesey Street. Then a further block south down Cornwall Street we turn east again along Roupell Street home to today’s pub of the day, the Kings Arms. After a quick pint of cider we carry on down to the end of Roupell Street then double back and cut through Windmill Walk by the side of the pub to reach Brad Street. Turn west here and we’re back to Cornwall Street and duck left through the railway arch to Sandell Street. This is the first of a series of streets that cross between Cornwall Street and Waterloo Road, the others being Alaska Street, Exton Street and Secker Street. The last two of these combine to circle round St John’s Church. The church was originally built to the designs of the architect Francis Octavius Bedford in 1824. It was struck by a bomb in 1940, when the roof and much of the interior was destroyed. The building stood open for ten years until it was restored and remodelled internally by Thomas Ford in 1950. In 1951 the Church was rededicated as the Festival of Britain Church. The interior isn’t much to write home about but the church is imbued with a very strong community spirit and has an extremely cosmopolitan congregation. It’s also home to the Southbank Sinfonia an orchestra formed anew each year through the 33 annual fellowships granted by its charitable foundation. The orchestra performs a series of Free Rush Hour (6pm – 7pm) concerts at St John’s throughout the year and I can testify as to the excellence of these.
Just across from the church in the roundabout at the nexus of Waterloo Road, Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge and York Road stands the BFI IMAX (as mentioned earlier). Built in 1999, this houses the largest cinema screen in Britain (20m high and 26m wide). It has a seating capacity of just under 500 and a 12,000 Watt digital surround sound system. Since 2012 Odeon Cinemas have operated the IMAX under licence.
It just remains to cross over at these lights to Tenison Way and from there take the escalator up to Waterloo Station and that’s one more out of the way.