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The East South Bank

Updated: Nov 3, 2018


Maybe I’m sensitive to these things or maybe it’s just that the clustered phalanx of modern buildings blots the sunlight permanently from these ancient thoroughfares, but I always get a slight sense of chilling dread as I slip into the back alleys between the Cathedral and the Thames.

Image credit : britbeeby

From medieval times, south of the river was the bad side of town – while the jurisdiction of the City of London forbade almost everything that might remotely be considered pleasurable, Southwark was home to taverns, theatres and brothels and all the associated villainy that comes with such territory. These narrow alleys weaving their way behind the buildings facing the river are geographically the same as they were in Shakespeare’s day and would have been just as crowded then as they are now. The first surviving remnant of old Southwark that you come to is the only remaining brickwork of the cathedral of the Bishops of Winchester who ran the ‘geese’ who ended up thrown away and discarded in nearby Crossbones Yard. Further down, before the tourist trap of the Clink prison is Stoney Street from which (allegedly) we get the expression Stoney broke.

Slipping out of the shadows (and avoiding the lures of Vinopolis, oenophile’s dream) you come to the Anchor. Despite its claims that Shakespeare once drank here, the Anchor is far more recent than it looks but who cares about Shakespeare anyway? There are hundreds of locations where the boozy bard lifted his writing arm, but the Anchor is the only pub I know that can lay claim to being haunted by a tail-less dog. Legend has it the luckless hound belonged to an anonymous regular who, closing the door behind himself too swiftly one night, permanently docked his faithful mutt. Despite losing his tail, the dog remained loyal and was killed defending his owner from a gang of hoodlums it’s said the poor canine’s spirit still haunts the building looking to be reunited with his missing tail.

Walking under the Southwark Bridge you’ll find some elegant representations of the great Frost Fairs of the 19th century during the mini ice age that was almost certainly the result of the explosion of Krakatoa. There will almost certainly be a busker too. There always is. The Globe Theatre is of course a must-see (though again Python fans, it’s only a model) and the wrought iron gate that displays every animal mentioned in Shakespeare is an interesting trivia quiz (if you can get near it) but far more interesting and less prominent is the row of small Tudor buildings a few metres down. At the top of Cardinal Cap Alley, so named because it was the entrance to the Bishop of Winchester’s personal brothel (that pimp seems to crop up an awful lot doesn’t he?) is the one time home of Sir Christopher Wren. More significantly and more humanly, this was the building where Catherine of Aragon landed in London for the first time in 1501. It’s a small and assuming building, but for one night it was home to a girl of 16 shipped off to a foreign country as a political trophy to marry a 15 year old boy she’d never met, little knowing that she’d then end up marrying his brother and becoming the centre of a religious schism still tearing the world in two today. After a triumphal pageant through London for the new princess-to-be, she and Arthur were married five days later in St Paul’s Cathedral. But not that St Paul’s Cathedral. That St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London, a slow burning affair that killed only seven people and yet still destroyed a sizeable part of the city. Remarkable then to think that the current St Pauls was saved from one of the largest bombing raids in Britain’s history by men armed only with buckets and primitive pumps and hoses So once you’ve crossed the Millennium Bridge it really is worth stopping to pay your respects to the fireman’s monument at the top of Sermon Lane. And yes, I’m probably prejudiced – I never knew my Granddad because he was a fire warden in 1940 (although this was in Sheffield, where the steel works attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe). Before the first night of the Sheffield Blitz he switched shifts with a young fireman who wanted to propose to his girlfriend that night. My Granddad, already a veteran of the Suvla Bay landings of World War One, took his place and was killed in the second night of bombing raids. It’s said that St. Paul’s was Hitler’s primary target in London, that he believed that if the Luftwaffe managed to topple the dome of our greatest building the morale of Londoners would surely crumble. And the firefighters of London refused to let that happen; as the sky rained down bombs and fire, brave men stood atop the dome, stamping out sticks of incendiary while engineers from the bomb disposal squad dismantled thousand pound bombs inside the cathedral itself. While there’s no doubting the genius of Christopher Wren in creating our most beautiful building, please stop at the monument and spare a thought for all those who kept it standing.

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