The Boroughers 13/01/18: Southwark Can you dig it?

Morning. Or afternoon. Or evening, I suppose. Hello. Like it or not, you’re now reading chapter 2 (of 32... actually, probably 33, since we might write a concluding chapter? Maybe I should stop thinking so far ahead) of The Boroughers, a 2018 odyssey through all of London’s boroughs in search of culture. As you probably gathered from the big fat title at the top, I’m here to tell you about our experiences in Southwark.


Southwark. I’ve told you twice now. It’s mid-January and we’re still too scared to venture north of the river. This is one of the 22 boroughs that we consider to be “making an effort”, by which we mean they’ve submitted a bid. However, with apparently no microsite or hashtag or other social media stuff that we can find, effort isn’t perhaps the right word.

Southwark. As if that wasn’t obvious.


  • City of London residents were once banned from buying cows at Borough Market
  • Charlie Chaplin was born in Southwark
  • Southwark Bridge was built to alleviate congestion on London Bridge, but they charged a toll so no fucker used it


As with all our early 2018 excursions, the day starts with a train from Thames Ditton. And, apparently, as with all our excursions, we’ve got ham and cheese in bread for the journey. Our Lewisham picnic was sourced entirely from Budgens; Southwark is rewarded with what on the surface seems to be an upgrade - this is not just any ham and cheese roll, this is a Marks and Spencer ham and cheese roll - but to be honest it’s not all that. The bread is too bready, and the cheese not strong enough.

The 381 bus was our chosen means of entering the borough. Unlike the 185 from chapter 1, there is precisely nothing notable or distinctive about this route. But it came along quickly and we had the whole top deck to ourselves, which was nice.

Confusingly, to me at least, the border was not the main road at Blackfriars bridge. I was sure it was, and also sure Southwark did not have any welcome signs - but we zoomed past one by the Thirsty Bear pub, failing dismally to get a photo. D’oh! The first notable thing inside the borough is a hoofing great block of new flats - “we don’t build homes, we build futures” - and two Stamford Street signs that are ludicrously close to one another.

A few seconds later and we’re off. Nip in between the office blocks and, hello, here’s the Tate Modern and some weird blocks of terrifyingly expensive flats.

Instantly we see people - adults - on huge swings. Why are there huge swings? Who cares, let’s have a go on the swings!

Life is rubbish.

We’re not here to just swing on swings or visit the Tate Modern though. Our rules are that, where feasible, we should be doing stuff that neither of us have done before. I had thought that it might be a bit tricky, since I’ve worked in Southwark for the last 4 years, but turns out I’ve never spent any time staring at plinthed heads made out of volcanic rock.

Turns out all them swings were An Art. We participated in an art! That’s cultured, right?

But we did have an actual destination in mind. It’s the Bankside Gallery, home to the royal something or other of watercolour artists and some other people. Can’t remember who. I don’t really appreciate art but Helen does. We’re reasonably sure it’s around here somewhere, and thankfully there are way more signs than is necessary.

There’s an exhibit on that finishes soon, of small pictures. So it’s just a couple of rooms with walls full of small pictures, with the occasional big picture.

I’m mostly unimpressed. Most art doesn’t move me at all. I like that several people have drawn or painted or etched buses and trains ‘n that, but there’s no emotion stirred. I’m just “that’s alright”, “meh”, “whatever” the whole way round. The gift shop is much more interesting ‘cos there’s books that I’d quite like to buy: George Orwell, Locke’s “On the abuse of words”, loads of others, few of which seem to have much to do with what goes on in the gallery.

Back outside and we think, fuck it, since we’re here we might as well poke our heads in the Tate’s turbine hall and see what’s going on.

What’s going on is more swings and a giant silver ball

The ball is swinging too. I don’t know what this is meant to represent beyond just “I’ve made a big swinging ball”. Me and art, eh?

My phone’s Live Photos thing allows for the creation of long exposure photos. See, it’s swinging.

Enough art. We’ve got a bit of a schedule to keep, albeit quite relaxed with long gaps between stops. We wander along the South Bank, along with thousands of other people. Get out of our way!

There’s a dapper man with a manual typewriter doing poetry on demand.

And some buildings that Helen likes, about which I have otherwise nothing to say.

The Globe Theatre is here ‘n all. We’re starting to think perhaps Southwark haven’t bothered with any “please give us the money, Sadiq” efforts because there’s really no need.

Our next designated thing to see that’s new to us both is the Ferryman’s seat.

Everything you need to know about it is written on the plaque above. Except perhaps you might like to know that it’s in the wall of a Greek restaurant, and on a side street called Bear Gardens on which we spot wheelie bins supplied by a waste company called “Dirty Harry’s”.

Also there are crudely drawn arrows on the ground. We don’t know what they’re pointing to. Following random arrows never goes wrong, right?

Oh, it’s the Rose. I walk past this on my commute a lot and honestly thought it was just some little theatre, though I knew there was a plaque and thus there was something historically significant about it.

And then we get kidnapped. We’re about to take a photo of the final pavement arrow, an L-shaped affair outside the Rose’s door, when a woman leaps out of the door and says HELLO ARE YOU COMING IN WE’RE OPEN PLEASE COME IN THERE’S A FILM ON RIGHT NOW. We’ve got somewhere to be in about an hour, so there is actually time to kill. What the hell.

An Ian Mckellen narrated film tells us a bit about the history of the theatre, and how they’re desperate for cash to do it up again.

We actually missed most of the film, but never mind - the kidnapper comes back and grabs us and insists on giving us a private history lesson. This theatre predates the original Globe, is where 2 Shakespeare plays debuted, and was also a big Marlow house. The lights designate where the original stage was, then its extension, plus the stalls.

Another woman is fetched and we’re told to sit down by some tables of archaelogical finds borrowed from the Museum of London. We’re told to pick something up at random, then draw what we think it belonged to. I resist, but it takes me 3 attempts to do so and I don’t really enjoy it. JUST DRAW WHATEVER YOU THINK IT CAME FROM etc. What we had just handled was a bit of ceramic made by the Germans from a posh beer flaggon. Apparently back in the 1500s they did have a bar at the theatre, but you had to bring your own vessel out of which to drink. The beer was made by Fuller’s, and eventually we Brits started making mugs ourselves but they were much worse quality.

They’re raising money to do a better, fuller excavation of the site and reopen it as a working theatre in its original form, rather than the tiny performances they put on in the small area to the side that they host right now. I shove some cash in the donation box but it’s still hard to leave, they’re insisting we have enough time to watch the bit of the film we missed and PLEASE DON’T GO PLEASE DON’T LEAVE PLEASE COME BACK AND WATCH MACBETH. O...K....

We flee the kidnappers to, er, the other side of the road, where the site of the original Globe theatre is now a bunch of plaques and some flats. Also a list of breweries.

Further up and around the corner, next to Wagamama is a mural of Shakespeare (OK, enough already) and a bloke playing 20s music on a flaming tuba. Huh.

Past The Clink (England’s oldest prison) and there’s these ruins. Honestly, I’ve walked past these about 7 times a week for the past year. BORING.

The Golden Hinde is here too. Or is it the Golden Hinde II? Some Francis Drake boat. I dunno. It’s always busy and located such that you can’t really get a decent photo, ever. I am genuinely not fussed by all this stuff because it’s so familiar to me.

At Southwark Cathedral there’s a big metal sculpture of fuck knows what.

And across the street, Glaziers Hall. Full of Worshipful Companies of this, that and the other. I do like a Worshipful Company, it must be said.

My commute continues as the Shard pokes its head above the office blocks, St Olave makes an appearance, and the local smokers have been granted a gaudy and uncomfortable bench.

Next is London Bridge station. Now we’re talking! Trains ‘n that! Well, sort of. We’re not here to get a train, we’re here to be somewhat impressed by the architecture of the newly reopened hallways, and to go for a piss.

Good innit.

Out the other side there’s a big sign telling us that even more culture will be here by the end of the year, but it’s not ready yet.

We’re now standing under Europe’s tallest building (I think? Haven’t looked it up) and I’m admiring it while standing next to the hospital at which I was born. Bollocks to Charlie Chaplin, yours truly was born in Southwark ‘n all. Where’s my wikipedia page?

As it happens, I did briefly have a wikipedia page. Well, sort of. My friend Calum made a page for the word “schadenforeman”, which means “the paradoxical state of taking pleasure in your own displeasure”. It got deleted within an hour or so because I’m not famous, and because only about 8 people know the term. That made me sad, which obviously made me happy.

Also, Shard ‘n Foreman.

A few doors up from my birthplace is our 2 o’clock appointment. We’re here to visit the Old Operating Theatre, where my brother visited back in September and both me and Helen have had our eyes on for ages but never got round to. Hurrah for our Boroughers project giving us the kick we needed.

It starts with a long spiral staircase ascent, using a thick rope for a bannister. I hate spiral staircases and it’s a very unpleasant way to enter what is, oh, hang on, it’s a fucking fantastic place. We pay our cash and affirm that our name is down for the 2pm talk, and have a very quick gander at the displays.

There’s actual brains and aneurysm-ing blood vessels and all kinds of tools for bashing the body around. Ace.

And there’s animals and jars and recipes for tinctures and elixirs and medicines and stuff.

This is what a spinal cord looks like. Also more knives and stuff.

But basically we only have as much time to spare as it takes to take those photos, because the talk is starting soon and the actual operating theatre is already getting quite busy. We’d best go get a seat.

Are we sure about this?

Mariella Frostrup* appears and gives the 50 or so of us in attendance a warning that some of the stuff in her gruesome talk might cause people to faint, and that’s like totally normal and stuff.

*not actually Mariella Frostrup

What follows is an hour long talk about the old St Thomas’ hospital that used to be on this site, the people that would be admitted here, and how operations worked in a pre-anaesthetic era. Because this place opened 25 years before anaesthetic was in use, and most operations were amputations. Ouch.

Before the amputations, she handed around 3 tools for entering the male urethra and bashing up uric acid stones. But then she spent half hour wandering around wielding a saw.

Consuela from the audience volunteered to have her leg amputated. This is the condensed version of how surgery went:

  1. Open the patient up by cutting into their flesh
  2. Root around with your hands to do the dissection
  3. Saw through the bone in about 10 seconds
  4. Cauterize or ligature the stump
  5. Bandage it
  6. Administer an “opium cordial” containing 1.5 pints of brandy
  7. Have your patient die 7-8 days later, which you would blame on miasma - i.e. the horrible stink of the wards

It was a really in-depth talk about which I made copious notes primarily for my own memory, but I’m not going to transcribe much here. There are better sources than me for actually learning about this stuff. It’s an excellent talk if you can make it there on a Saturday though. Neither of us found any part of it gruesome enough to even consider fainting, and seemingly nor did anyone present.

Once it’s over, you get to wander through the theatre itself. The 50 or so punters squeezed in is actually only one-third the amount of student and other surgeons, dressers, etc who would be in attendance during an actual operation in the 1800s. Not much privacy here. Also, they’d all be smoking dope. Seriously.


The table itself looks uncomfortable and you can discern the grooves from the sawing.


Everyone has a good gander at the old scrubs, and the saws, and the pictures, and stuff. Seriously hospital does not seem to have been a particularly pleasant place to be back in the day, but that said it was better than the alternative so thank fuck I was born in the 1970s is all I can say.

Back in the main museum we scoot around taking more photos of cabinets and skeletons and stuff, but not spending any time to take much in.

The perilous spiral staircase is less unpleasant to descend than ascend, but it seemingly goes on forever and by the ground I feel a bit dizzy.

Our plan to get back on the 381 to the next venue was somewhat scuppered by Tooley Street being closed, so instead we jump on a jubilee line tube a couple of stops, then a perfectly timed change onto the Overground.

Destination: Rotherhithe!

There’s another museum around here. As with the Bankside Gallery, and the Rose Playhouse, this is remarkably well signposted. Over-signposted, in fact. Southwark do like to point out where its attractions are. Here, we’re off to the Brunel Museum.

I run past this a few times a week, but again, never been in. It’s here because the tunnel the Overground now uses between Rotherhithe and Wapping stations was built by the Brunels, and is the first ever underwater tunnel in the whole world. Our visit to the museum starts with abject failure to find the way in.

Eventually we figure out that you go through the cafe, waving your art pass at the disinterested girl on the till. A man says “there’s a talk just starting!”, and as with the Rose we stumble accidentally into considerably more learning than we’d anticipated. The museum itself is just one mezzanine with a timeline of displays about the tunnel’s construction and the Brunels themselves, but we don’t get to see it because of this talk.

There’s plenty to know about Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom. Cracking name, that. Basically they were absolute engineering geniuses who got through a shitload of work. As well as this tunnel they built ocean going ships, bridges, railways, you name it. The Clifton suspension bridge was built while one of them (I forget which; Marc?) was taking sick leave in the west country. I mean seriously, bunch of show-offs.

Our guide led us to the giant shaft, made by the technique of “build a 50ft diameter ring of bricks and iron, and put an engine on top, and because it’s really bastard heavy just wait for it to sink deep enough into the ground so you can start tunnelling”. Cunning. The shaft now is a space for performance and drinking, and they have a projector projecting images about the tunnel ‘n that.

It took ages to build - they started it before railways were even invented, intending it to be used by horse and cart. They ran out of money though, so couldn’t build entry ramps so instead it was just for pedestrians. Since neither the residents of Wapping or Rotherhithe had any reason to visit one another, because both were staggeringly poor districts, it was mostly a tourist attraction where the well-to-do (including Queen Victoria) would pop along, pay a penny, wander through the tunnel and then fuck off home. All the locals got out of it was to watch said well-to-do folk arrive in their fancy carriages ‘n that.

In the shaft the talk is given entirely on the staircase, and we’re too far back to really hear much of what’s being said so we bugger off.

We’ve not eaten since the picnic, nor had a drink except for a WH Smith softie a few hours back, so let’s go to the pub. We’ve been here before, and it’s quite famous as a launching point for many explorations back hundreds of years ago.

Of greater import to us is that we can have a beer and a pie with gravy. As with almost every pub in London, they claim to be the best at what they serve. I like that they have a cheeseboard menu with options from 2 to 11 different cheeses. Eleven! But I have a venison and bacon pie instead, while Helen opts for steak and ale.

The pub is fucking heaving though, and not a particularly pleasant place to spend any time, especially as we’re sat in the temprorary marquee out back rather than on any nice indoor seats. So we go for a moody walk along the Thames Path through Rotherhithe, stopping occasionally (OK, once) to stare wistfully north.

The Old Salt Quay is a pub almost exactly 2.5km from where I work, so I regularly use it as the turning back point when I do a lunchtime 5k. Not once have I ever run past it and though “that looks nice, I fancy going there for a pint one day”. Let’s go there!

It’s not as bad as I expected. They have craft beer and it’s easy to get a seat and it’s much more peaceful than the Mayflower. Unfortunately my choice of beer - even after I have a sample - turns out to be terrible. I do not recommend Old Mulled Hen spiced festive ale, unless you like drinking cinnamon.

It’s a calm enough break, because Helen’s suffered from sensory overload. Too much learning, too much noise, too much of everything. A half of crap lager in a quiet estate boozer and her battery is somewhat recharged, so we can now head back to the Brunel Museum because there’s one last thing in our diary for the day: wassail!

This is the Midnight Apothecary mega-hipster cocktail evening. Bear with us.

Helen has a “Let It Sloe”, I have a “Woodland Martini”. These are good choices.

We’re back in Brunel’s shaft, for an evening of folk music and ceremony and expensive cocktails and Helen constantly referring to it as a tunnel when it’s manifestly not.


There’s a bloke who stops playing violin for a bit in order to play bagpipes.

Almost as soon as we sit down, the Wassail Queen and the Green Man pop over to have a chat with Helen.

“I’m here to impregnate all the ladies. She doesn’t mind”, he says

It’s all very fucking Wicker Man. But this isn’t an accident, we bought these tickets in advance and knew what we were getting ourselves into. It’s the recreation of an ancient ceremony where people give prayers to the apple trees young and old, imploring them to provide a bountiful harvest in the coming year.

Since we’re there way before the ceremony itself, we now have time to actually walk around the bit of the museum we’d failed to look at earlier. The chronological story is told via issues of “The Thames Informer”. Working on the shaft and tunnel was dangerous and many people died during their construction, but we can’t help but smile when we learn the first such death was that of a bloke who got pissed and fell down the shaft.

There’s these little 3D cardboard depictions of how the tunnel looked and stuff.

I am here.

Outside in the garden there are lanterns and flaming sticks. Some people are toasting marshmallows. We go and buy some hot rum toddy.

The Green Man and Wassail Queen come to the garden, and the butler shouts that the procession is about to start. Everyone gets up and wanders to the big apple tree that isn’t actually an apple tree. The folk musicians play folk music, and then we hush while the butler gives a spiel.

Lyric sheets for the wassail carol are handed out, and the butler tells us how it’s a bit like Crackerjack: whenever he says “wassail”, we have to shout “wassail!” back. He says “wassail” a lot.

I’m fully engaged in this, and sing the chorus of the carol each time. Helen remains somewhat more detached and aloof.


Hanging from the tree are loads of slices of toast, and even today I don’t know why. I expect Helen will tell me when she reads what I’ve written; I also expect not to edit this paragraph.

The Green Man and Wassail Queen are a bit weird, eh?

With the young and old trees blessed, and all the women impregnated, we can now go back downstairs and queue up for more cocktails. We can’t easily find how to get wassail punch or marshmallows but whatever. I had a marshmallow beer recently and it was rank, so this is probably for the best.

The band pipes up, literally. Helen expresses a desire to learn the accordion. I spend half an hour or so shouting it’s a shaft not a tunnel each time she gets it wrong.

By now we’re quite drunk. Well, I was anyway. I blame the fact I barely ate until quite late in the day, and it was accompanied by beer, and also I’m not a seasoned cocktail drinker and probably neck them way too quickly. But it has been a super-hectic day of enormous fun. Let’s go back to Rotherhithe station and take, apparently, the best photo of the day.

But we’re not getting the tube. We’re bookending the borough with a return trip on the glory that is the 381, caught opposite a strangely closed local shop for local people.

Again we. have the top deck to ourselves. Reflections in the glass make for weird effects on any photos during the diverted route.

Through effortless charm I successfully convince Helen that we should have a night cap in the Waterloo Tap, where I have a smoked beer that is excellent. I despise the sour beer she has half of.

There is a conversation amongst the kind of people who wish to scrawl on toilet walls.

And then, a visit to Marks and Spencers. We drunkenly spend north of 40 quid on various ready meals, prepared fruit salads, and unwise train booze. There’s a well-timed service ready to deposit us back in Thames Ditton, wherein we are treated to something not experienced for the previous 10 hours: silence. And a cat.

Scores on the doors

As detailed on our Boroughers homepage, we score each borough out of 7 in 3 different categories, with a possible maximum of 42. Without further ado, here’s our ratings for Southwark on the day:


  • Fun: 6 - point dropped for non-consensual learning
  • Learning: 7 - enforced learning means cannot fail to earn the max
  • Nice: 5 - good architecture, plenty to see, but points dropped for excessively frequent signposting including on wheelie bins


  • Fun: 5 - points dropped due to being dragged around art
  • Learning: 7 - see above. Even Helen foisted some knowledge my way about bear baiting and prostitution, ffhs.
  • Nice: 6 - would’ve been much lower had we ventured any further south, mind. Elephant, Peckham, ...

So that’s 36/42. A high score on only our second trip. The rest of London has a lot to live up to.

Created By
Darren Foreman

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