Given that I have worked most of my adult life in London, London Bridge is an area that I'm fairly familiar with. That's what I thought anyway.
But when I went back recently for a radiotherapy treatment at Guys Hospital, I ended up taking time out to rediscover new attractions and places of interest that I hadn't before paid much attention to.
Although I was aware that over the course of the last decade at least, London Bridge has changed in terms of fancy new shopping arcades and the building of the tallest building in Western Europe (The Shard in case you've been living under a rock), I wasn't quite aware at how much I'd been sauntering past some great places of interest. London Bridge isn't boring – and it's certainly not falling down. In fact, if you've got more time on your hands, I'd suggest taking your pick from hotels near the shard and staying overnight to really get the most out of discovering London Bridge.
So, here's what I discovered…
To set the scene; it was that time between Christmas and New Year when hours and days meld into one and life is one non-stop round of mince pies and dimly lit evenings in front of the telly. One of these days had been selected for me to make the journey to Guys Hospital for radiotherapy and, thinking this would be the perfect occasion for ‘us’ time for VIP and myself, we clambered on a deserted suburban train with London Bridge in our sights.
It was a brisk morning and damp had made the air murky and dim. As we buzzed around underneath the imposing shadow of the aforementioned Shard, we headed to Guys whilst I mentally noted all that was going on in the neighbourhood.
They say that in cities one of the best ways to discover things that you have never noticed before is to look up; you know what -it worked. No more than 200 yards from Guy's Hospital exit was a plaque describing the origins of the name of the road – Great Maze Pond. There is evidence of waterways under these very streets stretching all the way back to Roman London. Farmers from Kent and Surrey used to graze and water their animals here on the way to Smithfield market. In the first quarter of the 18th century, Guys Hospital for Incurables was built here and nearly 300 years later here I was being treated at the same site.
An even more arresting sight awaited us as we neared the entrance to Guys. Namely, a large bronze sculpture which VIP said looked a little like a giant knuckle-duster. Closer inspection of the site revealed a small porthole-like window with an invitation to click on the related QR code. It turns out that underneath the street where we were standing, a 2,000 year old sailing barge was discovered back in 1958.
The sculpture, named BOAT and created by Daniel Silver, is a tribute to this long-forgotten maritime past of this part of London when Southwark was actually a series of islands. The boat still remains where it was discovered, just underneath the entrance to the Cancer Centre that was built in 2016. The things you learn!
Contemplation at The Science Gallery
We continued on our way up London Bridge Street until we came to the Science Gallery. Until the end of this month there's an exhibition which explores how artists respond to anxiety and mental health called On Edge. It was an interesting perspective into one of the most common afflictions of the modern age; visitors are exposed to images and video as well as other stimuli in a sensitive and thoughtful way, and if you happen to be in the area in the coming weeks then it might prove to be an interesting diversion.
A short detour through the excellent gift shop (featuring some interesting reading material), and we ventured down some stairs that led to the courtyard in front of Guys Hospital. The day was trying to brighten up a little but we were still in search of novelty. A quick dash across the road and we found ourselves on Saint Thomas Street; we knew that we were heading vaguely in the direction of Borough Market (I wanted some fudge!), but we were keen to see what else the area had on offer.
From hospital to operating theatre
Literally a stone's throw from London Bridge Station we came across an A-board bearing the legend – Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. With my curiosity piqued, we decided to climb the narrow spiral staircase which leads to the garret mentioned in the title of the museum.
Saying the staircase is narrow understates it somewhat; VIP mentioned that it felt more like climbing a vertical tunnel. Having climbed the 50-odd steps, you are welcomed into a very cosy space; immediately your nose is presented with smells probably not encountered since school day labs – faint but definite indeterminate chemicals.
The garret was actually the attic of the 17th century belltower of St Thomas’ Church and in its current guise as museum, is an Aladdin’s cave of medical and pharmaceutical paraphernalia. I loved it! Glass cases and drawers held old phamaceutical lotions and potions; handwritten lists of herbs and ingredients adorned the walls; and there was even an apothecary’s counter which references its previous life as a herb garret.
The star of the show, however, was the operating theatre itself. St Thomas’ Hospital moved from this site in the 19th century and so the operating theatre was boarded up and there was no real access to it until over half-way through the 20th century. Raymond Russell was the individual who is most responsible for the restoration of this fascinating part of the local history and it's well worth a visit for those who like to explore.
Bring on the fudge
By this time I couldn't get fudge out of my mind and I knew the place to go would be Borough Market. Well, while in the area it was rude not to. Borough Market is a real gastronomy mecca; it’s like someone turns up the stimulation dial as you enter the market as you are assaulted by the sight of hundreds of stalls and vendors, the sounds of crowds and raised voices and last, but not least, the fabulous wafts of exotic and delicious smells of the produce.
I spotted a stall full of fudge delights called Whirld – it was just what I was looking for. I was a bit worried about how much the few pieces of fudge I had in my bag would cost, as the person in front of me spent £30 with two bags. I wondered if I'd have to do the equivalent of a ‘walk of shame' and end up putting it back. Fortunately, I must have picked some pretty small pieces as it was just over £3.
I kept the fudge in the bag, as by this time we'd worked up an appetite and decided to look for somewhere to eat. As we set off walking we passed the gardens of Southwark Cathedral; the building itself is really impressive – it was London’s first gothic church with origins dating back to the 12th century. Other notable places of delight included a place called Bread Ahead. I always say you can tell a place by the company that frequents it – and if it's busy, you know you're onto a good thing. Bread Ahead was packed – and a quick peek through its windows revealed some gorgeous looking cakes and sweet delights.
Eventually we came to the dry dock which houses the Golden Hinde, the 1970s replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th century ship. Like the original, this Golden Hinde has quite a few miles on the clock, having also circumnavigated the globe, albeit some 400 years earlier. Nowadays, the ship is permanently docked and often hosts school parties who are encouraged to don period costumes and pretend to be Tudor sailors on voyages of discovery.
Directly opposite is the Old Thameside Inn and by now we had worked up something like a hunger so we popped in. Some brave souls were perched outside nursing pints whilst the wind whipped off the Thames. VIP told me that in the summer it's a prime spot for city workers to grab a drink after a day at the office. At the tail end of December, however, the view would have to sacrificed for the warmth of indoors.
While a chain pub, the Thameside Inn was homely and ideally placed for many of the attractions of the London Bridge area. I opted for the Hunters Chicken while VIP inhaled a Nicholsons Burger with onion rings and chips. Very nice and it was great to take the weight off the soles and reflect on our day. But it wasn't over yet…
Setting off walking again we came across the remains of Winchester Palace and then onto Clink Street. These are two names that are synonymous with the area. Winchester Palace, former residence of the Bishops of Winchester, is managed by English Heritage and makes for a curious juxtaposition with the restaurants and shops that it leads on to on Stoney Street. It was the aforementioned Bishops who received rents from many of the brothels in medieval Southwark (something that the area was renowned for) that meant that prostitutes were often referred to as ‘Winchester geese’.
No more than a few minutes walk means arriving at the entrance to The Clink. Now a by-word for any prison, the Clink was probably the most notorious of the medieval prisons of what is modern day London and you can learn about the gruesome goings-on for under £25 for a family of four. Not bad value for central London.
As we stood looking around, I heard some music and spotted a crowd gathering. We decided to see what the fuss was about and came across an old guy playing the trombone with some Shakespearean graffiti as his backdrop. But this wasn't some ordinary trombone; every so often it would shoot out balls of fire much to the crowd's delight – the things you see!
As the light dimmed, my thoughts turned to a comfy sofa and a cup of tea, so we headed back in the direction of Borough Market, which was still bustling even at the end of the day. We had just one last stop on our ‘rediscovering London Bridge' tour; a tip given us by the friendly woman at the Old Operating Theatre Museum. We plugged in the postcode into Apple maps and we dutifully followed the route away from Borough Market into more unprepossessing streets until we arrived upon a (sadly) closed Cross Bones on Redcross Way.
Now a memorial garden supported by the local group, Friends of Cross Bones, the site has a grisly but undoubtedly fascinating past. As early as the 16th century, references were made to a ‘Single Woman’s churchyard’ (for prostitutes) – and because of their lifestyles they were denied the rites of the church.
By the 19th century the churchyard was closed, being ‘overcharged’ with the dead. Through the closed gates we were able to see the space and could make out how this graveyard of the ‘outcast dead’, through the hard work of volunteers, could be an oasis for quiet contemplation amidst the bustling activity of this corner of South London.
So it looks like I've got a great reason to go back and explore a bit more of the London Bridge area – I need to get back to Cross Bones for some quiet reflection, mindfulness and contemplation amongst the exciting bustle of the city. It's even in my New Year's Resolutions to do more of this; the only question that remains – who's up for joining me?
*This is a collaborative post with Hotels.com: my spending money was gifted in return for an honest opinion of my London Bridge discoveries!