London’s Soul: The South Bank

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Today’s article is a stark contrast from the previous article for the London section of CUB. The entry titled: The Alchemist, posted a fortnight ago, recommended physical alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails London has to offer. However this weeks’ article recommends the ‘metaphorical’ cocktail of delight that is the South Bank, and is a refreshing taste of culture for readers.

When someone says ‘London’, a barrage of images instantly springs to mind. Perhaps among these are big red buses, telephone boxes, Big Ben and The London Eye. Or maybe something more prosaic, like skinny victorian terraced houses, or the invisible hand of Uber.

I would like to bet that it is not the South Bank of the Thames. But maybe it should be…

It’s origins are humble. As London grew through the 17th and 18th centuries, the South Bank remained a muddy marsh, only accessible to ferry borne merchants, and so remaining a green oasis within the dirty city.

This was the case for much of London’s pre-history. But as the 19th Century arrived, the borough of Lambeth (which the western half of the South Bank lies within) became a hub of popular culture. Music halls and ‘penny gaffes’ were everywhere, and showcased a host of activities that were deemed disorderly. At the same time, industry transformed the area from a rural oasis, into a hub of economic activity. Workers flocked en masse to the South Bank to ply their trades in timber yards and printing houses. It’s previous rural beauty was firmly destroyed with the creation of Waterloo Railway and Underground Station. The railway company was given license to demolish anything they wished to increase railway lines, playing a crucial role in kick starting the pollution filled smog which hangs over London’s skyline today.


Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:


Cut to 1951 and London, just like Britain, was a changed place. Two world wars had smashed both the political order and the urban landscape. Something new was needed to revitalise an exhausted population, and that something was the Festival of Britain. Despite being bombed to pieces in WW2, the South Bank was chosen as the Festival site and cleared out for the famous national celebration in 1951. This established the Royal Festival Hall, a permanent cultural fixture, which was to be followed by the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, and the British Film Institute. Despite the ugliness of buildings like the National Theatre, built in the Brutalist style, this was a wonderful symbol of London’s cultural soul. The establishment joined forces with artists to create something for all to share and take part in.

This sense of regeneration reached its peak with the rebirth of the OXO Tower. Originally built in the 1930s, the art deco tower was designed to advertise the famous stock cube, using glass windows to get around strict advertising laws. Yet the docks eventually closed and the tower became derelict by the 1970s, a clear sign of Britain’s fading vitality. Yet when a developer attempted to turn it into a hotel and offices, local residents formed the Coin Street Community Builders, intending to bring about a new kind of regeneration that worked for the local people.

With this creative energy, money was sure to follow. In our own time, the South Bank is rapidly being filled with chain restaurants, luxury apartments and hotels, street artists, as well as family attractions such as Sea Life London Aquarium and Shrek’s Adventure! London. Oh and how can I forget to mention the SC Food Market which has become a regular fixture at London’s South Bank, and caters for the ultimate foodies with cuisines inspired from countries around the world. It is fair to say that the giants of our cultural traditions remain, but the landscape of the South Bank is ever evolving- constantly being updated to keep up with the times, making it a fusion of both old and new.


Photo Credit: Jason Hawkes
Photo Credit: Jason Hawkes


So, to return to my first point, the South Bank is truly the soul of London. It is transgressive and metropolitan. Community groups and artists have played as great a role in its development as politicians and property moguls. It is a gift for everyone, not just Londoners. That is why I wrote this article, to shine a light on London’s South Bank, which is often overlooked in favour of other attractions. But I would like to point out that most of these attractions (the London Eye for example) actually sit on the South Bank itself and owe their popularity to this history-rich site.

Therefore, next time you are in the area, why not take a walk along the South Bank and be filled with pride for how previous generations have shaped its past, and how your generation is shaping its future! And make sure you take advantage of the wealth of activities occurring at the South Bank all year round, such as the Southbank Centre Beach and Zip World London.

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