Bankside has been the place where Londoners come to play since London was first invented. All the serious important stuff on government and money making happened on the north bank. Over on the south bank things were a little more relaxed. Even now, there is lots to explore on Bankside beyond Borough Market: we’ll start there but meander on and discover wonderful things.
Foodie heaven. Borough Market comes in two parts, well three really. One has stalls selling street food. My favourite is Horn OK which sells the most delicious Masala Dosa. Next provisions, fruit, vegetable, fish, meat …. take your pick. Some of the best foodie raw materials in the capital are on offer here. Third is the myriad of small shops, cafes and restaurants that have popped up around the market. My favourite of all of these is Neals Yard Dairy.
There has been a church at the southern end of London’s oldest river crossing since at least the Doomsday book. The church was dedicated to St Mary and became known as St Mary Overie, or over the river. Although a large and fine church, it didn’t actually become a cathedral until 1905.
- Southwark Cathedral, London Bridge, SE1 9DA
- Open: For service times check website, when there is no service Monday – Friday 9am – 5pm, Saturday 9.30am – 3.45pm and 5pm – 6pm, Sunday 12.30pm – 3pm, 4pm – 6pm
- Admission: Free, if you want to take photos a permit costs £1
- Special candlelit photography evenings take place a few times a year, check the website for details of the next one. £11.50 gets you into the candlelit cathedral for a couple of hours.
Wander along and take in the view
For my money the walk along the Thames at Bankside offers some of the best views in London. Yes, you can stand on some of the bridges or go up tall buildings but this view from ground level is the best for me. Whilst you’re strolling, look around you.
Take a close look at the bollards as you walk around. After the Battle of Trafalgar the British took possession of a lot of French cannons. Once the Napoleonic wars were over these cannon were sold as scrap. Some of them found use as street bollards, with firing end lopped off and a cannon ball stuffed in the barrel. Most of bollards that you see now are modern. But this one over looking the Thames is an original French Napoleonic Cannon!
Take a look at the street names, they tell the story of what used to go on around Bankside. Bear Gardens was not a pleasant place in which to see wild animals but rather the place to go to see Bear Baiting. Bankside, recalls the great earthen banks built to keep the Thames at bay. Cardinal Cap Alley is named after a well known brothel that used to stand here.
Known to all as the Wobbly Bridge, as when it was first opened it did indeed pitch and roll in a most alarming way. It has long since been fixed and wobbles no more than any other bridge but still the name sticks. The Millennium Bridge, as it is properly named, was designed by Norman Foster and was opened in the year 2000. Whatever you call it, it is a fine place to get good views across to St Pauls or along the river.
Winchester Geese were not birds but women. More specifically prostitutes. Bankside with its drinking dens, bear baiting and brothels was under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. Far from considering such activities ungodly, the Bishop encouraged them and benefited greatly from the taxes that he levied on them. The Bishop held court in a magnificent Palace, all that remains is a wall with an empty rose window.
Bankside was a far from salubrious place in the past, many of the extremely poor people who lived and died here were buried in a mass grave on Redcross Street. It is thought that 15,000 unnamed people are buried here. Now the site is home to a park and many people light candles and tie rags for remembrance.
Make sure that you head south from Tate Modern to use the pedestrian crossing over Southwark Street. Camilla Walala created this crossing as part of the London Design Festival. It makes me smile every time I use it and is the only road crossing that I go out of my way to use!
Theatre on Bankside
Bankside was where you came to enjoy yourself. It was outside the jurisdiction of the City of London and all manner of things were allowed here that you couldn’t do on the North side of the river. Theatre was one of those things. Shakespeare built his theatre here and you can still see shows today.
Shakespeare’s Globe isn’t the actual theatre that Shakespeare knew but rather a loving recreation of what the Globe would have looked like. If you don’t have time to take in a show then you can take a tour of the building. Some years ago we took the teens to see A Midsummer Nights Dream here. We thought that it would be a one time visit to a tourist trap, it was wonderful. We have been back every year since and are now Friends of the Globe!
Menier Chocolate Factory
An intimate theatre space based in a former chocolate factory, the Menier may be small but it is big hitting with many of its productions transferring to the West End and even Broadway.
When I first came to London, Bankside was awash with artists working away in gently decaying warehouses. Now it is home to London’s most popular art gallery.
I took Mr CW on a hard hat tour of Tate Modern, when it was midway through being converted from a power station, for our first date. With hindsight a risky choice but both our relationship and the gallery have thrived! Come to see an amazing collection of modern art. Small children love running up and down the Turbine Hall, we spent many happy hours there when the teens were tiny. Check out my guide to current London exhibitions and museum cafes for low downs on where and what there is to eat.
- Tate Modern, Bankside SE1 9TG
- Open: Sunday – Thursday 10am – 6pm Friday – Saturday 10am –10pm
- Admission: Free (special exhibitions need to be paid for)
Nestled in the shadow of Tate Modern is the Bankside Gallery, home to both the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers. The gallery puts on free shows, where you can buy most of what you see and the shop always has an excellent selection of birthday cards!
- Bankside Gallery, 48 Hopton Street, SE1 9JH
- Open: Daily 11am – 6pm
- Admission: Free
Interesting stuff that defies category
OK an odd heading, but I’ve thought really hard and miscellaneous seemed a bit short. One of the things that I love most about Bankside is its quirkiness and variety, you never know what you might stumble across round the next corner.
Nestling in the lee of the Shard, right next to London Bridge Station, the Science Gallery aims to highlight the area where art and science meet. Its fascinating exhibitions are thought-provoking and free. Even better, on the ground floor there is a really good cafe.
- Great Maze Pond, SE1 9GU
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm
- Cafe Open: weekdays 7.30am – 6pm, weekends 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Free
Right opposite the Science Gallery is the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret. Originally this was the church of St Thomas’ Hospital, the roof space was used for drying medicinal herbs and was later used as an operating theatre. It is nothing like the squeaky clean operating theatres of today, indeed it looks far more like a theatre than a medical space. The Old Operating theatre is the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe.
- 9a St Thomas Street, SE1 9RY
- Open: Monday 2pm – 5pm, Tuesday – Sunday 10.30am – 5pm
- Admission: Adult £6.50 concessions available
Clink is a slang term for prison. This is the original Clink, a little piece of linguist history! There has been a prison on this site since 1144. Nowadays it offers the chance to experience the sights and smells of an old style prison and to handle the gruesome torture devices on show.
- 1 Clink Street, SE1 9DG
- Open: Summer daily 10am – 9pm, winter 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Adults £7.50, concessions available
Odd one this! The Golden Hinde is a full size reconstruction of the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the globe in the sixteenth century. This ship was building in the 1970s and has undertaken many long ocean voyages of her own. Now lives on Bankside and you can go on board to see what an ocean going galleon was like.
- St Mary Overie Dock, Cathedral Street, SE1 9DE
- Open: Nov – March Daily 1oam – 5pm, April – October 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Adults £5
Bankside is one of the oldest settlements in Britain. For 6,000 years people have lived here. It was with the creation of Londinium that the place really began to buzz. This was where you came to eat, drink and be merry. Bankside was home to many stewhouses, not convivial places to eat tasty stew but rather raucous brothels. Beside the stewhouses were many animal baiting pits. Pleasanter entertainment was to be had in one of the many theatres. Shakespeare would have known this area well. Later the area became industrial, the home to wharves, warehouses and a huge power station. Now the power station is an art gallery, the warehouses are apartments and hotels and wharves gone.
Eat and Drink in Bankside
Eating and drinking has always drawn people to Bankside. You could, of course, never stray out of Borough Market but flee the crowds for tempting alternatives a little further afield.
Once upon a time Borough High Street was lined with galleried coaching inns. Now only one remains, the George Inn. Before the theatres were built the yards of these taverns doubled up as performance spaces. Shakespeare put on shows here! Now the pub is owned by the National Trust and is a fine place for pub lunch or even just a pint.
Yet more Shakespeare connections. The Swan is the tavern that is attached to the Globe Theatre. It is a fine place for a pre-theatre dinner but at anytime of day the tables offer good river views over to St Pauls.
Nestled in under one of the many railway lines that criss cross the area, the Arch is a wine lovers’ paradise. You can either sit in and drink or buy a bottle to take away from the extensive Laithwaites list.
The Boot and Flogger was once the only place in the UK that didn’t need a licence to sell wine. Revel in that history as you find a cosy place to sit in the warren of tiny rooms that never seems to end.
Tibits is the place to head if you are vegetarian or vegan. You select as much or as little food as you want from a buffet and pay by weight. Perfect for ensuring that food waste is kept to a minimum. Omnivores will not miss meat as the food is delicious.
Staying in Bankside
Bankside is a good location to stay in if you are visiting London for a holiday, connections to the rest of the City are good and you are surrounded by places to eat and drink.
Native Bankside are serviced apartments tucked away just behind Tate Modern located in one of the many old warehouses. They have one or two bedroom apartments with kitchen and sitting areas. Downstairs they have an area stocked with the makings of a simple meal or breakfast if you don’t have time to pop out and shop.
How to Get to Bankside
Blackfriars and London Bridges mark the easterly and westerly boundaries of Bankside and luckily both have train stations. Thameslink trains stop at Blackfriars, make sure you get out at the southern end. London Bridge has mainline trains and the Jubilee and Northern Line underground stations. You can, of course, walk across the Millennium Bridge from St Pauls.
Disclosure: I was invited on a tour of Bankside by Better Bankside, all opinions are my own.