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.
- 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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Open the patient up by cutting into their flesh
- Root around with your hands to do the dissection
- Saw through the bone in about 10 seconds
- Cauterize or ligature the stump
- Bandage it
- Administer an “opium cordial” containing 1.5 pints of brandy
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.