Cultural capital: Explore London’s Southbank

South Banks
National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge, with London's South Bank. Credit: VisitBritain/Pawel Libera/Society of London Theatre

For the best culture in the capital, London’s Southbank still reigns supreme. Sally Coffey takes in the sights and sounds. 

South Banks
National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge, with London’s South Bank. Credit: VisitBritain/Pawel Libera/Society of London Theatre

On a house to the east of Blackfriars Bridge on the south bank of the River Thames (in an area now referred to as Bankside) is a plaque that reads: “Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral” a claim that has been widely dismissed by historians, though it is accepted that he probably stayed in a house close by.

Not far from here is the spot where Shakespeare’s Globe theatre (which the playwright owned shares in but, contrary to popular belief, didn’t actually set up) stood until the Puritans ordered its closure in 1642, leading to its demolition two years later. It has since been reconstructed as faithfully as possible to its 16th-century design.

Despite the historical significance of this area, the riverbank to the west of these sites, now known as London’s Southbank, was largely ignored until the 19th century, save a period in the Middle Ages when it was used for illicit entertainment, prostitution and bear-baiting.

London’s Southbank refers to an area of riverside that stretches for two miles from Westminster Bridge, which has been pivotal to the growth and evolution of the city over the past century and a half.

Prior to the 19th century much of this part of the Thames was marshy and considered inhabitable but following the opening of the now beloved Old Vic theatre (then called the Royal Coburg) in 1818, two things happened that changed the fortunes of the region. In the 1830s the industrial revolution brought multiple wharves, tanneries, waterworks and leadworks to the area; and in 1848 a train station opened at nearby Waterloo.

One of the most celebrated of these new businesses was the Lion Brewery and following its closure in the 20th century the Coade stone lion of its frontage was saved (reportedly on the request of King George VI) and placed on Westminster Bridge: it is now called the South Bank Lion.

Tate Modern, Bankside
Tate Modern, Bankside, London. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View

However, the Southbank as we know it today – a cultural hub that features some of the best live performance spaces in the world – only really began to take form following the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The Royal Festival Hall was built specifically to host the London centrepiece of this extravaganza, a national celebration of Britain’s contribution to science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts, which aimed to lift the nation’s spirits post-war.

Over the next couple of decades new artistic spaces opened, not always to the approval of audiences. The ‘brutalist’ architecture of both the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the National Theatre were at first maligned, though today they are celebrated for their post-modern designs.

The Southbank Centre, which has been given an overhaul in recent years, now encompasses the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery, and the Saison Poetry Library, all of which host innovative (and often free) arts projects.

The London Eye
The London Eye by the River Thames, Southbank, London. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View

You can hear talks by some of our nation’s best writers and enjoy the vibrant festival schedule, which ensures something exciting is happening every weekend. See the English National Ballet, or listen to a performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

If the world of stage excites you then the National Theatre, which was borne from the Old Vic and moved here under the directorship of Sir Peter Hall, is hard to beat. It puts out on average 20 new performances each year, with everyone from Dame Judi Dench to Ralph Fiennes treading its hallowed boards.

Southbank
Southbank with tree covered walk way, Southbank, London. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View

Next door, the British Film Institute has the most impressive film collection in the country with regular screenings of classics from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant alongside the most avant-garde new releases. In addition, you can book a slot to watch and listen in private to any of the 2,500 films in its huge Mediatheque catalogue for free. When you’re finished, browse the hundreds of secondhand books for sale at the daily Southbank Centre Book Market, which is something of a London institution.

If you’re feeling peckish or simply fancy a glass of Champagne or a cocktail, then the Oxo Tower with its splendid vistas is perfect, as is Skylon, a modern European restaurant within the Royal Festival Hall itself.

For a more relaxed affair, Gabriel’s Wharf is tucked away in a little enclave near the Oxo Tower and has some lovely independent shops beside a pizzeria and Studio Six, an informal restaurant serving British fare.

However, by far our favourite way to experience the Southbank is to stroll along its promenade in the late afternoon when there’s still a buzz about the place and dusk is beginning to fall, giving the city’s skyline a romantic glow. For us, this is London at its best. 

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