London Walks: Bermondsey And Rotherhithe

Two more of Joolz’s Guides London walk videos. This time with a very personal connection to beetleypete!
(Each short film is around fifteen minutes long)

The first is a tour of Bermondsey, the district just immediately south and east of Tower Bridge, on the banks of The Thames. We see how the former leather-making district has becme ‘gentrified’ since the 1980s, but all the historic buildings remain. I was born in Bermondsey, and lived there until I was 15, when my parents moved us away to the suburbs. In my youth, the leather industry was still very much in evidence, and the modern-day food markets and smart delicatessens were traditional street markets, and cheap cafes.

The second film features Rotherhithe, which is a continuation of the walk from Bermondsey, along the riverbank to the east. Once again, we see the preserved history, and how docks and warehouses, where my grandfather and my mother worked during WW2, have now been converted into smart (and very expensive) apartments and restaurants. Joolz continues to the famous riverside pubs The Angel and The Mayflower. I moved back to Rotherhithe in 1985, and lived not far from The Mayflower. In fact, I had my second wedding reception in the upstairs restaurant of the pub, in 1989! It has famous connections with The Pilgrim Fathers, and the founding of America.

If anyone is planning a visit to London, watch to the end of the second video. You will see that you can book Joolz for a personalised tour of London, and contact details are shown. I couldn’t think of anyone better to show you around, except me of course!

London’s bridges in photos

There are no less than 33 bridges across The River Thames in London boroughs. As someone born in that city, and where I lived for 60 years, I have been across most if not all of them during my life. If you have never visited that great metropolis, you may not know just how many there are, and how diverse they are too. So here is a selection.

Westminster Bridge. On the north side, you will find The Houses of Parliament.

London Bridge. The oldest river crossing, from Southwark, first bridged by the Romans. One later bridge was famously sold to an American, and is now a tourist attraction in Arizona.

Before the Great Fire of London, the bridge was heavily built on, with shops and living accommodation. You can see the heads of executed criminals and traitors, on spikes over the entrance. The huge church on the south side is still there today, now extended, and called Southwark Cathedral.

Waterloo Bridge. Stand on this bridge and face east, and you have one of the best views in London. This was immortalised in the Kink’s song, ‘Waterloo Sunset’.

Vauxhall Bridge. On the south side, you will see the famous MI-6 building, shown in a James Bond film.

Lambeth Bridge. The building visible on the north side is the headquarters of MI-5.

Albert Bridge, to the west. Always illuminated at night, it it one of London’s most attractive bridges.

Tower Bridge. Saving the best until last, my favourite London landmark, and an image associated with the city since the bridge was opened, in 1894.

Let me know if you have a favourite London bridge.

Non-Tourist London: Surrey Docks to Tower Bridge

This is another entry in my series of walks, for those visitors to London who would like to get off the beaten track, yet still immerse themselves in the history of the city. This starts in the area where I originally grew up, and then lived in for a second time, from 1985-1997. Many tourists and visitors enjoy a trip to Tower Bridge. They can look across to The Tower of London, gaze along the river, see City Hall, and the nearby park. But how many venture further east, delving into the working-class past of this part of south London?

This guide to a walk of discovery should provide a nice diversion for the interested traveller, and makes for a nice morning or afternoon, ending at a familiar place that has good transport links, and lots to do once you get there. The dockland area featured in this post has seen a great deal of transformation since my youth, yet the spirit of the past is in every step, and historical sights and buildings are there to be found, along with breathtaking views across the river, to the modern development of Canary Wharf, and some very old districts too. Links will be provided at the end.

Start the journey by taking an underground train to Surrey Quays Station. This is in Zone 2, on the East London Line. Exit the station onto the main road, and opposite, you will see the large retail development, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre. Cross at the traffic lights, and walk north onto Redriff Road. You are now in the place that was once home to the huge Surrey Commercial Docks complex, where ships from all over the world were unloaded. After the relocation of this work to Tilbury, in 1969, the docks were abandoned, until extensively developed by the London Docklands Development Corporation, in the 1980s. Walking on the right-hand side of the road, the first thing of interest that you happen across is the Dockers’ Shelter. Many dock workers had to wait each day to be given a tally, entitling them to a day’s work on the docks. These casual employees would shelter from the weather under this construction. It features a mural, highlighting the history of that trade.

Continue along Redriff Road, until you pass Norway Gate on your right. The road name now changes to Salter Road. Take the next right, into Rotherhithe Street, and bear left. On the next bend, you will see an open space, and the entrance to The Surrey Docks Urban farm. This is a valuable local resource, teaching inner-city children about farm animals, and providing a classroom for school trips too. The farm is open seven days a week, and entry is free. Walking along Rotherhithe Street, you will see a mixture of social housing that has been home to generations of south Londoners. As this existed at the time when the docks were still thriving, and was accessed by bridges, some of it is unchanged. The change in the law that enabled tenants to buy and sell their homes has brought many new arrivals, but the feel of the area has changed little since my young days, playing around the dockside. These contrast starkly with the many converted warehouses and luxury wharf-side developments, sold at prices far beyond the reach of ordinary local people.

Coming up on your right is the restored Columbia Wharf. There is a modern Hilton Hotel here, and access to Nelson Dock Pier. This was once a riverboat stop, (and might be still) and it offers great views of the Canary Wharf complex, just across the river. Squeezed in between converted warehouses, you won’t miss the timber-framed black and white facade of the pub The Blacksmith’s Arms, a little further on. This traditional drinking establishment also serves food, (until 15.00) and has an outdoor garden too. The interior is unchanged since the 1930s, and provides a real feel of what a London pub should be. Carrying on, now heading west, you will come to Lavender Pond Nature Reserve, which will be to your left. This small reserve is managed by Southwark Council, and is something of a refuge from the dense housing that surrounds it. The park was also home to the Pumphouse Museum, now sadly closed. The pond was originally used for floating the wood that arrived at the docks, to stop it drying too quickly.

Keep going until the street opens out, near the junction with Salter Road once again. You will see an old bridge across an inlet, and to your right, the modern pub/restaurant called The Old Salt Quay. The upstairs bar and terrace offer uninterrupted views of the river, and across to the district of Wapping, in east London. You can see the river frontage of the famous pub, The Prospect of Whitby, as well as the home base of the River Police. In the distance, to the west, is Tower bridge, and this is an ideal place to stop for a drink and watch the water traffic, or just enjoy the view. After your rest, (or not) continue along the old street. There are some modern housing developments on both sides, as well as the old terraced houses that have been there for decades. Some people also live on houseboats moored alongside, with footbridges giving them access to the land.

You will soon arrive at one of the oldest parts, an area that looks like something unchanged for centuries, even allowing for the modern conversion of the old warehouses. To your right, you will see the tiny pub, The Mayflower. This old building is worth a look, even if you don’t want to eat or drink there, as it is more than 400 years old, and retains many original features. It is a popular tourist destination still, despite its distance from the more visited sites in central London, and some tour groups are actually bussed there, to enjoy the experience. The small jetty overlooking the river at the rear serves as an outdoor space, and can get very crowded in peak season. Opposite the pub, is the church of St Mary The Virgin. This was rebuilt in the early 18th century, but a church has stood here since 1282. It is home to the grave of Christopher Jones. He was the captain of The Mayflower, the ship that took many of the original Pilgrim Fathers to America, in the 17th century. The church is still well-used by the local community, and has many historical connections.

Take the narrow Thames Path as far as Elephant Lane, before turning north, (right) to find the path again. At the junction with Cathay Street, you will see another old pub, The Angel. This riverside pub has some history too, dating back to an original inn in the seventeenth century. The current building was erected in 1830, and is Grade 2 listed. It is a popular pub, serving good food as well as drinks. A narrow outside terrace offers panoramic views along the river. The location also marks the boundary between Rotherhithe, and the adjoining borough, Bermondsey. Turn right, (with your back to The Angel) and you are on Bermondsey Wall East. A short walk will take you to the ruins of the riverside Manor House of Edward III, built in 1353, which will be on your right. An information panel marks the site, which is maintained by English Heritage. At the junction with Cherry Garden Street, turn right to continue along Bermondsey Wall East. On your right, you will see a sign for Cherry Garden Pier. This haunt of my childhood is now a departure point for river cruises, and makes a good spot for photographing the river, The Shard, and Tower Bridge to the west. It is also the site of the grandly-named ‘Bermondsey Beach’, where access to the riverbank reveals sand and stones, and an interesting place to walk, if the tide is out.

After this point, riverside access is restricted. I suggest you walk south along either Cherry Garden Street, or Marigold Street, until your reach the busy Jamaica Road. Turn right, and you will see signposts for London Bridge. Stay on the same side of the road, and walk west for a while. There is not much to see, but at the junction with St James Road, opposite, is the imposing St James Church, a Bermondsey landmark, built in 1829. My parents married here, in 1946. Continuing west, you will pass Dockhead and Mill Street, crossing the River Neckinger to your right as you do so. At the junction with Tooley Street, turn right into Shad Thames. This old street is said by some to be the inspiration for the site of ‘Fagin’s Den’, in the novel ‘Oliver Twist’, and you can still imagine the urchins returning to the place, after a hard day stealing. In truth, Dickens’ almost certainly set the scene in Clerkenwell, as this area is some way from the other places mentioned in the book. The restored iron walkways above, crossing between the former warehouse levels, give an accurate idea of what the whole area would have looked like, in the 19th century. Part of this street was once known as Jacob’s Island, and was a notorious area in those days. There is now an art gallery here, named after it.

At the bend in the road, you will see the Art Deco edifice of The Design Museum to the right. This is a great place to visit, and well-worth the entrance fee. It also has a very good cafe/restaurant inside, and a well-stocked gift shop. Once around the bend, the rest of Shad Thames hosts a variety of restaurants and cafes, from the mainstream coffee bars, to the very expensive; like the marvellous Le Pont de la Tour, where we once enjoyed a family meal. You will be under the south side of Tower Bridge, back on the tourist trail, and able to gaze up at this industrial marvel, the best-known landmark of London. It is accessed by steps from the street, and from there, you can decide whether to continue your journey, or make your way home from one of the nearby stations.

I hope that you get the chance to take this walk one day. You will have been steeped in history, able to take some unusual photographs, and have seen a part of London that is very dear to my heart.

http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMDK2P_The_Dockers_Shelter_Redriff_Road_Rotherhithe_London_UK
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrey_Commercial_Docks
http://www.surreydocksfarm.org.uk/
http://www.blacksmithsarmsrotherhithe.co.uk/
Lavender Pond Nature Park & Reserve
http://www.mayflowerpub.co.uk/
http://www.stmaryrotherhithe.org/
http://russiadock.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-angel-public-house.html
http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Edward-IIIs-Manor-House-Rotherhithe/

This is Bermondsey Beach. The photo just appeared!
https://www.flickr.com/photos/levettday/8183029025
http://www.southwark.anglican.org/parishes/027l
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shad_Thames
https://designmuseum.org/
http://www.lepontdelatour.co.uk/

Architectural admiration (6)

For this part of the series, I will concentrate on places and structures found in Great Britain. This country has a lot of wonderful sights to see, and those that follow are just a few of them.

The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle, England.

Some cities are defined by a single structure. You only have to see a picture of a building, or famous statue, and you immediately recognise the location, even if you have never been there. One of these is Newcastle, where the distinctive Tyne Bridge is identifiable to almost anyone in the UK. There is a good reason for this too. The bridge connects the city with nearby Gateshead, and this industrial centre of the North-East of England has associations with ship-building, trade, docks, and mining. The imposing through arch bridge straddling the River Tyne is itself industrial in appearance, strong and purposeful, very much like the city that it is a part of. It is not the only bridge crossing the river, but was opened in 1928, to assist with increasing traffic, and to avoid tolls on other bridges. If you think it looks a bit like a smaller version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, you would be correct. It was designed and built by the same company.

http://www.newcastlegateshead.com/things-to-do/tyne-bridge-p603151

Southgate Underground Station, London, England.

With the large expansion of the underground railway network in London during the 1920s, many stations on the outer edges of London at the time were constructed in unusual modernist styles. By far one of the best remaining examples is the station at Southgate, an area mostly now part of the London Borough of Barnet, close to the northern limits of the city. This amazing building resembles a spacecraft. The circular design, appearing to be supported by a row of windows, is topped with an unusual ‘spike’, with a ball on the end. This is surrounded by circular lights, giving a futuristic look to the whole structure. Best seen illuminated at night, it looks for all the world like a flying saucer, just about to take off.

http://modernarchitecturelondon.com/pages/lu-southgate.php

Neasden Hindu Temple, London, England.

Sandwiched between the busy North Circular Road, and the undesirable dwellings of the sprawling Stonebridge Park Estate, the once-leafy suburb of Neasden is no longer the place it once was. Factories, industrial complexes, and high-rise homes make it an unlikely place to find something as wonderful as this bewitching temple. But it is worth the effort to visit this least-likely tourist destination in north-west London, to be enthralled by what you will see there. The very fact that it is so alarmingly out of context in this otherwise depressing area, just adds to the effect. Built and funded entirely by volunteers from the community, this temple really does take your breath away. Opened in 1995, it was then the largest Hindu temple outside India. Standing before it, you have to look around, finding it hard to believe that you are still in London. From the gleaming white exterior, to the intricate carvings inside, it is a complete feast for the eyes. Non-Hindus are made very welcome too, and someone will happily show you around. It really is one of the most amazing things to see in London, and outside of the local community, one of the least known modern wonders of that city.

http://londonmandir.baps.org/the-mandir/

The Town Walls, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England.

As one of the main border towns between England and Scotland, Berwick has had a violent past, and a history of conflict. Constantly fought over by the English and Scots, it has been part of England since 1482. Due to its strategic position straddling the River Tweed, less than three miles from the Scottish border, it is a place that has always been heavily defended. It still boasts a fine example of an 18th century barracks, but its Elizabethan Town Walls and fortified ramparts remain as one of the best examples in Britain today. They are a fascinating look into the warlike past of these islands, and remarkably well-preserved. They are still free to walk around, and you can do it in less than an hour. The views are spectacular, and there is much else to see in this interesting market town.

http://www.visitnorthumberland.com/historic-sites/berwick-elizabethan-town-walls

The National Wallace Monument, Stirling, Scotland.

Unfortunately, the film ‘Braveheart’ has created and perpetuated many inaccuracies concerning the Scottish noble and warrior, Sir William Wallace. During the 13th century, he rebelled along with other Scottish nobles and landowners, against the English rule of their country. In 1297, he led the Scots to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, near to where his memorial is sited today. Despite defeating a much larger English army, the Scots failed to secure independence, later losing a major battle at Falkirk. Wallace was captured in 1305, and executed by the English, for the crime of Treason.
In 1869, a memorial to Wallace was opened, at the top of Abbey Craig, offering dramatic views from the top. Although perhaps intended to resemble a castle tower, it is somewhat Victorian Gothic in style, described as being ‘Scottish Baronial.’ The memorial serves well as a viewing platform, if you can manage all the steps to the top, (246) as well as a fair ascent from the car park. Each floor also has relevant exhibits, including Wallace’s sword, so it is entertaining for all ages.

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/stirling/wallace/

The Hoover Building, Perivale, Middlesex.

This magnificent building is one of the best preserved Art Deco constructions from the 1930s. It is situated on one of London’s busiest roads, The Westway, and provides a welcome sight in an otherwise uninspiring landscape. Built in 1933 to house the UK factory for Hoover vacuum cleaners, its colourful designs and unashamedly ornate features divided opinion at the time. After it closed down in 1982, there were fears that it would be demolished, and a local campaign to save it had some success. It was bought by the huge supermarket chain, Tesco, and after ten years of neglect, it was fully refurbished, and opened as a supermarket. Fortunately, the exterior had been listed, so was retained by the new owners, who built a conventional shop inside the walls. It is a true wonder in West London, and delightful when illuminated at night. There is a song about it on this link that you may not like, but watch the video, for the different views.

http://hidden-london.com/the-guide/hoover-building/

Tilbury Fort, Essex, England.

Where the River Thames widens, to the east of London, you will find the Port of Tilbury. For many years now, this has been an important container terminal, and landing-place for many of the imports that arrive from overseas. It is an industrial area, and even the most ardent lover of the place would be hard pressed to find it attractive. During the many wars involving England throughout its history, the strategic importance of this area was always apparent. The first fort was built here by Henry VIII, and was later reinforced and improved, until appearing in the star-shaped form we can still admire today. It was here in 1588, at the height of the war with Spain, and under threat from the Armada, that Elizabeth I gave her famous rallying speech to the assembled troops. This fort holds a special place in the history of England, and as a result, is now owned and maintained by English Heritage, as a museum in perpetuity.

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/tilbury-fort/

I hope that you enjoy this selection. Next time, I will be including some more from further afield.

Living for the city

Stevie Wonder once wrote a line in a song; ‘Living just enough, just enough, for the city.‘ I think I know what he was on about; at least it resonated with me, and made solid a thought long held in my mind.

When you live in a city, to a large extent you do provide for it, help to feed its needs, and by doing so, become used up, and eventually discarded. Cities don’t need individuals, and replace them quickly once they are gone. To a city, the loss of one inhabitant is of no more importance than the loss of a single termite to a colony. Think about it long enough, and you will realise that if you believe a city is there to provide you with your needs, whether they be employment, recreational, or residential, in reality, the reverse is true. You do what you do for the benefit of the metropolis, even if you do not choose to accept this fact. City living feels like survival. When someone gets home from a day’s work, they shut the doors, close out the noise, and relax. Inside, they feel that they have survived this great thing for one more day. Tomorrow is a fresh start. Living anywhere else is just beyond compare.

City life has its own pace. Often frenetic, and at the very least one pace quicker than anywhere else, and with that comes the need to compete. This competition can be for parking spaces, table reservations, theatre seats, the best view, or the latest thing. It can also be to just get through a day, to survive once again, to be able to get some sleep. If you live this city life, it is best not to think about it too much. The sense of your personal insignificance can be overwhelming, and the future stretches out in front of you, looking completely pointless. Cities seem to evolve and develop at a faster pace than the people that live in them. Modern London would look incredibly different to someone who lived there in the 14th century, yet the present day inhabitants of this city have much in common with their ancestors. Take away the electronic toys, the cars, trains and planes, and you have people who are essentially unchanged.

Their worries are surprisingly similar. Getting work, having enough to eat, meeting a partner, looking after their children. Read any stories of London life over the centuries, and you could put them into almost any time period. ( First removing the references to The Plague, of course) The diaries of Samuel Pepys give a fascinating account of life in London in the 17th century. What makes them more interesting to me, is that they show how little things have changed since then, at least in the everyday lives of the people. Living in a city defines your character, and to some extent, your personality as well. Despite my move to rural Norfolk, I am immediately recognised as a ‘city person’, by anyone who has ever lived in one, and equally by those who have not.

So why am I writing a post about city life today? Last weekend, I missed London. It was only fleeting, but nonetheless a tangible miss. I watched  a few minutes of the TV coverage of the London Marathon, and it all came flooding back; wafting over me like the smell of a familiar perfume, or the feel of an old shirt, that always fits ‘just right’.

There is little to compare with a spruced up London on a sunny day. Devoid of traffic, grand buildings of Portland stone shining, and the River Thames glistening, it really is quite magnificent. The sweeping vistas, the dramatic bridges and landmarks, and the riverside developments lining both banks. To me, it all screams ‘home’.

I am not a fan of sports generally, and I have to say that I find the Marathon somewhat pointless. When I lived in London, I regarded the whole thing as a massive annual inconvenience, that served little purpose, other than to promote the various companies that sponsored different parts of it. However, I did have one connection with it that was positive. When I moved to a house in Rotherhithe, it fronted the main road. Except for a purely ornamental front garden, and a grassed walkway, it was actually a few feet from the road itself, which was also part of the Marathon route. One of our friends was living in Kent, and she was a fan of the race. She asked if her and her partner could come up, as we could afford them a literal front row seat. They came up on the Saturday, and we all had a meal, and copious amounts of alcohol too. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast to banish hangovers, we put on the TV, and waited for the race to start at Blackheath, a few miles to the East. We placed chairs on the walkway outside, and checked with the TV coverage, for the moment when they made the turn into our road, from Surrey Docks Station. Taking position, we soon saw the leading runners go pounding by, followed by wheelchair competitors, going surprisingly fast. We had to take cover occasionally, as the flying plastic water bottles thrown by the runners, would come at us from all angles.

There was then a significant lull in proceedings, as the next large groups of runners would take some time to appear. There was time for refills of tea and coffee, or buck’s fizz. After this large group had gone past, the fun runners would appear. They would be wearing various costumes, some of which were very intricate, and also looked very uncomfortable. Of course, not everyone can compete at a similar pace, and it was not unknown for some of the less experienced, or disabled, to still be passing by late into the evening. First aid coaches went slowly by, and we could see the forlorn expressions of those inside, the runners who had already dropped out after a few miles. Some were carrying collecting buckets for charities, and we sometimes threw in a couple of pounds, for those that had meaning to us. Following on, there was a small army of cleaners, picking up all the water bottles, and other rubbish discarded by the entrants. By the time the road was re-opened, it was hard to tell that anything had happened, were it not for the few stragglers, still making their way to The Mall.

After it was all over, we would cook an early lunch, later bidding farewell to our guests. This happened only three times, as I split with my wife, and the house was sold. Those Marathon party weekends remain a fond memory now, one of heavy drinking and laughter, followed by our ritual viewing of this massive event. Although it was only once a year, for three short years, it holds considerable significance in my recollections.

There I was in Norfolk, misty-eyed in reverie, enjoying a view of London denied me when I lived there; an aerial feast for the eyes, of a city that had benefited from a good wash and brush up. I did miss it. I envied those walking on the South Bank, or strolling around the base of Tower Bridge. But inside I knew that this wasn’t my London, the city of noise, rubbish, dirt, and hard work. This was London ready for a night out, in its best clothes, freshly washed, and looking its best.

So I didn’t miss it a lot. A bit though.

London Life (1)

Until this year, I lived almost all of my life in one or other district of London, starting in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, which were then working class districts of South-East London. Then there was a gap, when my Dad moved us to Bexley, which was then in Kent but is now a London Borough. I later moved back to Clapham, then to Wandsworth, when I married. Going up in the World, so we believed, we moved the short distance to Wimbledon, where I stayed until 1985, when I moved back to Rotherhithe, specifically the part known as Surrey Docks. This was no longer just a working class district, as the regeneration of Docklands had radically changed both the area, and the people that lived there. After many years there, I eventually found myself in Camden Town, the now fashionable area just North of London’s West End, where I stayed for 12 years, until moving to Norfolk. So, I had lived in South East, South West, and North London, missing out only the extremes of the East and West at either end.

For those of you who do not know London, it must be said that it is a vast place. From Barnet in the North, to Croydon in the South, is a road distance of almost 24 miles, and from Dagenham in the East, to Hounslow in the West, nearly 30 miles. This is an area of 720 miles, all heavily built-up, with an incredibly dense population, and severe traffic problems. That population is very diverse, with inhabitants from almost every country in the World, speaking hundreds of different languages, and bringing their own cultures to the areas where they have chosen to settle. Yet Londoners are also strangers in their own, forbidding city. Many rarely leave the areas in which they live, except to commute to work, or seek entertainment.

Crossing the Thames from one side to the other is usually done underground, on the vast tube network, as using a car in the central area is a waste of time, and parking is at a premium, day or night. Most buses run the full 24 hours, and can be a good way of getting around, providing you know in which direction to take one in the first place. Only tourists sit in the front seats upstairs though, it just isn’t cool. And you don’t talk to anyone, unless you have to, it just isn’t done. No point asking directions anyway, as chances are the person you ask will either not speak English, or be as lost as you are.

It is just too big. As a result, Londoners have learned to live in the districts, turning them into small villages inside the Metropolis, each with a unique character. Street markets still thrive, though it is doubtful you would ever see them, as only the locals would know where they are. I am not referring to Camden Market, or Petticoat Lane, as these are on the tourist trail; I mean the old London markets, such as East Street, Roman Road, and Chapel street, where crowds still flock to do ‘normal’ shopping.

The original London, The City, is a place all to itself. Housing the financial district, St Paul’s cathedral, and The Barbican, it is self-governing, self-policing, and packed full of fascinating history at every turn. Teeming with workers during the day, it becomes almost uninhabited after dark, and at weekends, and eerily quiet, except for the small area in and around Smithfield meat market. Names you may have heard but that meant nothing to you, like Tottenham, Fulham, or Hendon, are in fact areas that are busier than most large towns in Britain, with a population to equal those too. Some Londoners live all of their lives in one or other of these areas, without ever feeling the need to travel around, or to move house; some because they have no choice, others from preference. There are districts associated with rich people, and expensive houses, like Chelsea, Kensington, or Hampstead. In reality, they are home to large numbers of ordinary working people also, and many were formerly the poorest areas of the Capital.

The River Thames is more than a river flowing through a major city. It defines your part in London Life. Whether you live North or South of it, what bridge or tunnel you use to cross it, views from bridges or embankments from one side or the other, and the iconic buildings and areas lining its banks, the Thames is everything to London. The former docks and wharves that were once the lifeblood of the Capital, providing its very reason for existence, and employment for a large part of the population, are now long gone. They have been replaced with pleasant walkways and open spaces, such as The South Bank, or attractive riverside dwellings, out of the financial reach of most of the inhabitants. It is cleaner, and the views along the river are better as a result, though I am not convinced it is really an improvement. Riverboats still ply their trade up and down the Thames, but these days, they are for tourism and entertainment only, as the few commercial ships that you see will be taking London’s rubbish to be dumped somewhere.

The once bustling pubs with river frontages, are now offering nouvelle cuisine, and welcoming coach parties of Japanese tourists, to enjoy a taste of ‘Real London’. Still, there are now cormorants fishing off the piers, and fish such as salmon have found their way back to the shadow of Tower Bridge, so that is something to be thankful for, I suppose. And there are the bridges. They are mostly spectacular, and something that I genuinely miss. London at night is enhanced by its bridges. There is the simply unequalled Tower Bridge, which still occasionally rises, to let large vessels pass, and the great concrete slab of Waterloo Bridge, which has always afforded the best view of London from anywhere in the centre. Further West, the bridges of Albert, Battersea, and Chelsea, illuminated by hundreds of lights, give a fairground appearance to their surroundings. If you ever visit London, make sure to take the long walk along the embankment from East to West, as the dozen or more bridges you will see on your way (there are more of course, but you will not walk that far) will tell you as much about London as anything else you may discover.

Religion is well catered for, though many of the ‘ordinary’ Londoners are far from religious beings. There are numerous Synagogues, catering for the large Jewish population, of almost 200,000. More recently, Mosques have appeared all over the City, including the grand and imposing main London Mosque, just inside Regent’s Park. There are Protestant and Catholic churches in abundance, including large cathedrals, as well as smaller churches of every denomination you could think of. The Hindu Temple in Neasden is worth the long trip North-West, as the building is stunning, and all are welcome there. There are places of worship for Hare Krishna devotees, Quakers, Mormons, and of course, Jehovah Witnesses. Alternative religions are well catered for too, and you will find the offices of Scientologists, Christadelphians, and even the Secular Society, for agnostics. For a City that seems to have put religion aside, it is exceptionally well served, nonetheless.

For most visitors to London, whether foreign tourists, or Britons attending a sporting event, or going to see a show, it is only the centre that they experience. The Theatre District, Chinatown, Soho, Oxford Street, or the large parks. For Londoners, these are communities too. Only yards away from the strip clubs and gay bars of Soho, lives a community that has existed for centuries. Social housing, deprived conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployment, all cheek-by-jowl with wine bars, night clubs, and theatres showing the latest big musical. You only have to listen to the constant sirens, or attend a hospital A&E department, to realise that something other than entertainment and shopping is really going on all around you.

You cannot ever hope to understand London unless you live there. You don’t have to actually be a Londoner, as I am. In fact, a minority of the inhabitants of London actually originate from there. It is a magnet for the whole country, as well as the World outside the U.K. There are as many Irish people there as can be found in Dublin, and Scottish accents are as familiar to Londoners as cockney ones. It could be argued that ‘real’ locals are dying out, as they move to the suburbs, escaping unaffordable housing, or just trying to get away from the hustle and bustle. But London has always had a diverse population, since the Romans first bridged the Thames, so it is more accurate to realise that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ Londoner; residence is the only qualification.

This is the City of my youth, my middle age, and the very thing that defines me. Though I no longer live there, I have no doubt that I will always be perceived to be, and to feel inside, a Londoner.