Old Times New Times

I took a walk through London on a winter’s morning. The sky was British Standard Grey, the air sharp. I had spent a lot of time walking in the city in recent months and had finally fallen in love with the hidden and obvious charms of my hometown. The walk this morning was to be relatively short: from my flat in Southwark, the Borough, to the China visa centre on Old Jewry up by the Bank. It is a walk through centuries of the city’s history and nearly two decades of my own.

Southwark itself is an early entrant into classical literature and features prominently in contemporary historical fiction. One of my favourites is Wolf Hall which opened up a new world beneath the tarmac and mud from Southwark to Liverpool Street and gave new life to the alleyways around Austin Friars.

Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens also stomped these grounds. No more than 150 yards from my front door, but hidden behind the 60s monstrosities that now line Borough High Street, is the remaining wall of Marshalsea Prison. The location, approached either across a bleak pedestrianised zone behind St George’s church and through a public garden or from an alleyway by the John Harvard Library, is so hidden and so unexpected I had already lived in the area for a year before I found it by following a gaggle of Dickens tourists. Dickens’ father was imprisoned there for debt and traces of his works from Little Dorrit to David Copperfield echo around the neighbourhood in the names of tucked away alleys and parks.

Five hundred metres further along the high street and two hundred years back in time Shakespeare used to hang out at The George, now famous as London’s last galleried pub. Half demolished, the remaining balcony hangs crookedly over a breeze block courtyard dotted with picnic tables and facing another 60s triumph. The exterior looks so sad that I have not yet managed to venture in.

London Bridge is where my own history first intersects with my winter walk. I used to meet my schoolfriend and flatmate for early career lunches in Hays Galleria, an 80s redevelopment far more funky than where I worked on Cheapside. At that time Shad Thames, just along the river and where I lived 15 years later, was still a backwater of rough east end thuggery, an awkward adolescence between its birth as working wharfland and maturity as chic loft conversions.

London Bridge itself, whose permanent piling is said to mark the birth of Roman Londinium, is ugly grey concrete and famous for being sold to an American who, according to popular myth, thought he was buying Tower Bridge. Its beauty actually lies in its views: southwest to Southwark Cathedral, one of London’s oldest Gothic churches, and southeast to the brand new blazing Shard, Europe’s latest highest residential tower. The Shard is so eye-catching it is easy to miss the less obvious architectural and naval history it dwarfs on the south bank from the Golden Hinde and Shakespeare’s Globe to HMS Belfast, St Olaf’s and the mayorie. The north bank has a similarly broad offering with the Tower of London, the Monument, the Gherkin and now the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater all crammed into the east and a northwestern skyline that includes St Paul’s and the BT Tower.

I have a no texting rule when I’m crossing the river and every time there is something to enjoy. On that particular walk a tug pushed a barge laden with sand and gravel upriver; a reminder that the Thames is still a working river, albeit nothing like the artery it once was. I visited the Tower Bridge Museum a couple of times and found it gratifyingly full of nerdy facts including the alternative design proposals and the number of times the bridge used to have  to lift daily for working boats. I seem to recall it doesn’t even lift that many times a year now.

Borough is also a film buff’s pilgrimage destination, with Harry Potter fans regularly coming to spot his Borough Market garrett. Before him and way more cultish was the shoot-out from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels on Park Street, a Banksy stencil lurking outside the warehouse where two rival gangs blew each other to pulp through the walls. Three years later a scantily-clad Bridget Jones chased Mark Darcy up the same street, catching him buying her a present at the unfeasibly close Royal Exchange. Chances are she would have caught hypothermia if she’d had to run the full 15 minutes it took me to get from there to Bank in the winter.

Arriving at Bank, I turned off Cheapside towards the visa office. As I did so it struck me as particularly fitting that my City career had begun with a graduate training course on Old Jewry. Now, 18 years later and on the same street, I was about to end that career and start something completely new.

One thought on “Old Times New Times

  1. and I believe that while his father was in Marshalsea Prison he lived almost opposite Hulme Place on Lant Street, hence the name of the primary school there.